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Valentine’s Day is a foreign concept. Devised in the West, it gives primacy to romantic love over community-based relationships. Even the symbolisms it dresses the occasion in — heart-shaped balloons, red roses, sugary chocolates and cake to represent the sweetness of the relationship, gifting of jewellery to highlight the sense of commitment — are all borrowed from American pop culture.

Yet, we in India, despite our community-driven culture and a continued shyness around romance, have agreeably adopted this practice of blatantly making our love known. Who is bringing about this cultural makeover? Economic liberalisation set the ball rolling by allowing foreign media access to our TV sets and our cultural consciousness. But ever since then, brands have largely taken charge of aligning the festival with Indian sensibilities.

In trying to say something different than their competitor, many of these brands end up updating the traditional codes of Valentine’s Day each year. And in trying to be more relevant with their communication or address those outside the conventional audience of Valentine’s Day, they end up responding to emergent cultural codes and expanding the Indian landscape of love.

With all these revisions annually coming into play, what does our understanding of Valentine’s Day look like in 2021? We have picked 10 examples of branded video content released between 2017 and 2020 to gauge the latest trends. Findings that you will discover below, right after we are done listing the traditional codes of Valentine’s Day — because as semiotics advises, to appreciate what is present you also need to acknowledge what is absent.

The traditional codes of Valentine’s Day

Here is what to expect: cute and/or grand romantic gestures from either of the partner, though in the popular heteronormative imagining, it is more the man who initiates them. Clichéd symbolism, like the kind we underlined at the start of this piece. A fancy meal or chocolate shared between the lovers. And then there are the lovers themselves — a young, heterosexual couple experiencing puppy love in their undisturbed cocoon.

With a strong illustration, you will find almost all of these requirements met. Like the 2020 Valentine’s Day ad from Cadbury Silk in which a young boy guides his girlfriend to a stunning cluster of fireflies that dot a tree in a far-off forest, where he offers her the poppable heart from the chocolate:

2020 Valentine’s Day ad from Cadbury Silk:

Or the 2019 Valentine’s Day ad from Hide & Seek that finds a young boy trying to impress a girl and the recognition of mutual affection leads them to share the biscuits:

2019 Valentine’s Day ad from Hide & Seek:

Updating the code by turning it inclusive

A glaring limitation of the traditional visualisation of Valentine’s Day is its focus on only those couples who fit the social bill, i.e., heterosexual partners from similar social backgrounds and from the same age group. Toothpaste brand Closeup has addressed this gap through its 2020 campaign that shares the stories of three couples — one gay, the other interreligious and the third with an unusually wide age gap between an older woman and a young man. Emphasising that romantic love isn’t just the preserve of matches approved by the orthodox gatekeepers of society.

Close Up #FreeToLove campaign from 2020

By recognising the inherently conservative context these relationships have to survive in, brands almost automatically end up countering another traditional Valentine’s Day code with a newer one: lovers existing undisturbed in their cocoon is a nice fantasy but they do eventually have to acknowledge their reality and receive some support from their environment to thrive.

While Closeup’s campaign makes a mention of this, Morris Garage India’s 2020 film #AcceptLove​ is solely focussed on it:

Morris Garage film #Accept Love:

(A young lady is surprised to find out that her parents have sensed the romantic relationship between her and her ‘close friend’ and are supportive of it.)

But, as Borosil’s 2019 campaign #FirstValentine demonstrates, social acceptance needs legal backing for ‘unconventional’ love to truly find support. The film is primarily built on the internal monologue of a woman who rejoices her freedom to enact all the clichéd traditions that heterosexual couples have tired of, because with the abolishment of Section 377, she can finally declare her love in public like they do.

Borosil’s 2019 campaign #FirstValentine:

This storyline reveals another code of inclusive Valentine love: the expression of love through well-worn symbolism and gestures may seem cliché to couples who have the privilege to celebrate the festival as they choose. But it is deeply meaningful to those who haven’t always experienced that privilege.

Expanding the scope through Indianisation

Culturally in India, love in the family is a more prevalent concept than love between couples. Therefore ‘Indianising’ or turning the concept desi can mean greater resonance among a brand’s audience, especially if it is not targeting the youth.

Resultantly, lovers can’t be shown to exist as an entity independent of their family — as seen in Kalyan Jewellers’ 2019 campaign where an army wife’s in-laws prepare a cake, a special meal and a gift for her to feel celebrated despite her husband’s absence on the day.

Kalyan Jewellers’ 2019 campaign:

It is almost as if the brand has responded to the cocooned lovers’ trope by saying romantic love that is built to last will be supported by family members and even occasionally influenced by them.

Within married couples, middle-aged partners find themselves addressed by brands such as Big Bazaar, which suggest Valentine’s Day celebrations aren’t just reserved for young lovers who are courting or are in their honeymoon phase. They can be as enjoyable and important even for a couple well into their journey together.

Big Bazaar updates this code for much older couples (mid-sixties and above) by showing that love isn’t just expressed through the ‘I love you’ and fancy meals and gifts. It can also be found in the everyday and the ordinary:

Big Bazaar film:

Expanding the scope by celebrating the platonic

Brands taking this route have wondered why Valentine’s Day celebrations need to be just about romantic love. While it might simply be an attempt to broaden consumer base, it has led many of them to validate platonic love by subtly comparing it with a romantic partnership, and underlining how both find people supporting and nurturing each other and expressing their affection through symbolic gestures. So, both must be given equal importance on the day.

Like two housemates who will readily support the other’s love by playing wingman:

Or two colleagues who grow closer after one ensures that the other eats home-cooked food instead of ordering from some outlet that delivers deflated-looking meals:

Negating the norms of Valentine’s Day

With brand narratives around the day growing more realistic, we have finally reached a point where brands have begun to recognise the polar extreme of the lovey-dovey couple that has recently grown popular in culture (with celebrities in the West labelling themselves ‘self-partnered’): the cynical single who sees the pursuit and maintenance of romantic love as a never-ending hassle. This point of view proudly claims the freedom and peace of mind that comes with singlehood instead of seeing it as a sorry state that needs the remedy of love.

You can find the male perspective in Pepsi’s 2020 single anthem ‘Swag Se Solo’ starring Salman Khan:

Pepsi’s 2020 single anthem ‘Swag Se Solo’:

And the woman’s perspective in Little Hearts’ ‘Break Some Hearts’ song, also from 2020:

Little Hearts’ ‘Break Some Hearts’ song:

Why use branded content to explore these stances?

Practitioners of cultural studies often highlight the cultural differences in communication through the concept of high-context and low-context cultures: where a high-context culture relies on subtle communication that is less direct than it can be, a low context-culture needs its communication to be direct and for everything to be spelt out. This concept can be used to describe any cultural sphere — whether a country or an approach to functioning laid out by an institution.

So, both India and the world of branded content can be described as high-context cultures. Advertising, on the other hand, will be classified as a low-context culture since it depends on overt and sometimes obvious communication to ensure that its product-selling is successful and leaves no scope for confusion.

Add two and two, and it seems only logical for brands to rely on branded content when trying to connect with an Indian audience about a foreign topic. It allows them the space for building on unarticulated contextual details to ensure richer communication. What else does a theme like romantic love demand in a country that feels conflicted about following its heart under the disapproving gaze of the omnipresent moral police?

(The author, Hamsini Shivakumar is a semiotician, brand strategy consultant and the founder of Leapfrog Strategy Consulting. In her weekly column for BuzzInContent, she and her team analyse interesting content pieces done by brands in terms of their cultural leverage and effectiveness of brand integration. According to her, the content has a symbiotic relationship to popular culture; it helps to form culture and draws from it. It works as part of a simultaneous and virtuous cycle of mutual reinforcement.)