Photo credit: Times of India
Indians have a strange love of parsing insults from the innocuous — or, as in this case, the poorly thought-through. Particularly when the phantom effrontery seems to come from foreigners.
The latest uproar involves a newly opened Haagen-Dazs ice cream store, which had the bad judgment to fly the banner depicted above to announce its store opening. It reads:
PARTIED AT THE FRENCH RIVIERA? WELCOME.
EXCLUSIVE PREVIEW FOR INTERNATIONAL TRAVELERS
Access restricted only to holders of international passports.
The reaction began with a sketchily described post by Times of India writer and Chief Editor of Times Internet, Rajesh Kalra, on his TOI blog, Random Access. According to Mr. Kalra, a pseudonymous “friend” of his was refused entry to this Haagen-Dazs store for failure to proffer an “international passport.”
The story was repeated by the TOI as a regular news story. Both pieces carried the headline, “Sorry, Indians Not Allowed.”
Since then, it has blanketed the blogs, generating breathless commentary. Feedback from readers has been overwhelmingly incensed and incendiary, even in response to the commendably even-handed post on Desicritics.
I don’t get it. Sure, the banner was stupid beyond belief. But that’s just it: who could read it and believe that it intended anything as sensible as an insult?
The promotion clearly meant to create cachet by equating the consumption of Haagen-Dazs with the romance and luxury of international travel. Was this ice cream seller determined to sell only to people who vacation in San Tropez? Of course not. To people who wish to sell us stuff, “exclusivity” means little more than “limited to anyone who will buy.”
In Noida, that means Indians. It makes no sense to interpret “international” to mean “foreign” or “non-Indian”. How many non-Indians are regularly hanging-out in the strip malls of the heinous suburban dystopia that is Noida? We can agree that the ham-handed promotion doesn’t reflect a great deal of business sense in the first place, but was it really intended to exclude 100% of the store’s potential customers?
True, the Times of India writer says his anonymous friend was excluded by the store manager (an Indian) for failure to present the so-called “international passport.” Is this remotely credible? First, consider the source: TOI. Enough said. Second, doesn’t this smack of, “I know a guy who knew a guy who…”? Third, what the hell is an “international passport”? The only thing I can think of is the United Nations Laissez-Passer, issued to employees of the UN and ILO.
The concluding line on the banner, “Access restricted only to holders of international passports” is, indeed, problematic. It is rather artless and seems takes the theme of “exclusivity” far too literally. But the clumsiness of the language also suggests that this was something generated locally and not by the marketing department of the American overlords. Leaving aside the inanity of the “international passport” requirement, what professional copy writer would follow the word “restricted” with the redundant word “only”? One in India, only.
Common sense suggests that (a) this was a dumb-ass promotional idea, (b) to foster the equally dumb-ass consumption of absurdly overpriced ice cream, (c) badly mishandled in the execution by some dumb-ass Indian ad agency, (d) on behalf of some dumb-ass decision-maker either at the franchisee or within the licensor’s organization. The interesting issue is the last. Who was ultimately responsible for this idiocy? If there is insult to be found in this fiasco, was it a racist barb emanating from shameless foreigners?
I did a little investigation, calling first to Nestle, which owns the Haagen-Dazs brand, and then to the public relations office of General Mills, Inc., which owns the rights to all Haagen-Dazs franchise licensing outside of North America. The spokespeople at both companies stated that each store is an individual franchisee, with “independent responsibility and control of advertising and promotion.” This doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that General Mills didn’t have a hand in the fiasco.
And which General Mills?
The next morning, I received an email from the director of Haagen-Dazs brand management at General Mills India Pvt. Ltd., Arindam Halder. Mr. Halder is the architect of brand management for Haagen-Dazs in India, and the man responsible for overseeing the opening of franchises like the one in Noida. His note offers some important details, which support my reading of the event as an ill-conceived marketing idea made even worse by incoherent manifestation:
There have been some reports on various online media alleging that the recently opened Häagen-Dazs shop in New Delhi, India, denied access to Indians. We vehemently and categorically deny this. Häagen-Dazs products and our Häagen-Dazs shop in India are and will always be for our consumers in India.
The recently opened Haagen-Dazs shop is open to one and all, and there’s no question of barring entry to anyone on any basis. The preview on Thursday, 10th December had a morning media event which was attended by journalists of repute from Indian media. The same evening we had a launch party for our friends and families, less than 5% of whom were foreigners. Also, during the mock training days at the shop leading up to 10th December, a lot of interest were generated and hundreds of walk ins were given samples of our ice cream. The store is now open to all public and seeing brisk business.
The poster in question was part of initial local store communication at a few locations within the same mall announcing the opening of the new Häagen-Dazs shop in the mall. The message was intended to suggest that you can enjoy, for instance, a taste of the French Riviera without traveling to France – by enjoying Häagen-Dazs. Unfortunately the reference to the international passport holder on the poster may have led to a significant miscommunication. This was completely unintended and we apologize for creating the misimpression that may have hurt our sentiments as Indians.
General Mills India
Clearly, there was no intent or attempt to exclude Indians; and we can all agree the brouhaha was the result of what Mr. Haldar euphemistically describes as a “significant miscommunication.” But there are two very pregnant ambiguities in his statement. First, the “local store communication” language doesn’t make clear who originated the promotional idea or created the banner, General Mills India (namely, him) or the franchisee. It simply says that the campaign was deployed locally, in the mall where the store was located. Second, the last line, in which Mr. Haldar says, on behalf of General Mills India, “[W]e apologize for creating the misimpression”, suggests rather strongly that the banner came directly from General Mills India. It sounds very different than, say, “We regret that this misimpression occurred at a Haagen-Dazs franchise.”
The concluding apology is also laugh-out-loud funny. So eager is Mr. Halder to self-identify as Indian, he essentially begs forgiveness for an Indian company having offended itself.
What conclusions can we draw from all this?
I think we can agree that there is no evil foreign hand in this story, no American or European racist out to mistreat Indians in their own country or determined to slight them. Indeed, Mr. Kalra of TOI got it exactly right (in his original essay, not the subsequent, abbreviated news item), even if he failed to look at the contribution of the licensor:
Whatever it is, it is idiotic. I checked later and found that the franchisee is an Indian company based in Delhi and the man incharge [sic] is also an Indian.
I have often maintained that we ourselves are our biggest enemies. Our mentality is that of slaves and we think anything is good only if its approved by foreigners, or the “holders of international passport”.
This is all about how India and Indians see themselves. Foreigners have nothing to do with it.
I don’t necessarily fault the bloggers fanning the flames of this supposed outrage for failing to take the 15 minutes Mr. Kalra and I did to pick up the phone and get the facts. It is slightly disappointing, however, that the online commentators have almost uniformly ignored the obvious lack of malicious intent behind the fucked-up promotion. And there is yet deeper culpability in repeating only the tastiest, most shocking morsels of this story, in complete disregard of the basic fact that the errors in judgment were made not by foreigners, but by Indians — even though this was reported and thoughtfully analyzed in Mr. Kalra’s original story. This episode presents a cautionary study of how untrustworthy and manipulable online information can become as true journalism cedes way to what passes for “citizen journalism” in the blog world. It is always tempting to tell the story, not according to the facts, but according to the sermon one wishes to preach. The art is to tell a morally compelling story within the bounds of the evidence.
To her credit, and as we would expect, Deepti Lamba’s Desicritics essay tells the full story — as it was revealed in the original TOI piece — and doesn’t shy away from noting Indian responsibility for both the debacle itself and the underlying attitudes which engendered it. Yet, even Dee reaches the abrupt and slightly ambiguous conclusion that “racist brands” should be chased from India. Brands aren’t ethical agents. People and corporations are. And those at the heart of this story were Indian. Perhaps Dee’s intended plea is to abolish self-loathing; but somehow the anti-foreign implication creeps through.
There will be some, of course, bitterly disappointed that there is no longer a foreign scapegoat by whom to feel insulted; but they will have no difficulty transferring their ire to me for pointing this out. And it will feel just as good, since I am a foreigner.
If Indians want to salvage some national pride from the situation, they can always take encouragement from the fact this crazy promotion could happen in Mother India, but could never have occurred in the United States. After all, most Americans don’t have a passport and have not heard of France.