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March 31, the International Day for Transgender Visibility, saw the release of a three-minute-long branded film called ‘Mirror’. The film is about a young boy who finds a kite flying a bore and so chooses to run off and play dress up with his mother’s chunni and the makeup found in her drawer. He finds unbridled joy in draping himself and dancing around but quickly stops upon discovery by his mother and grandmother.

The boy expects to get scolded and you, the viewer, recoil in fear for him. But to his relief, the mother restores the chunni on his person and joins him in the dance, as the grandmother claps and smiles in the background. The film wraps with a call for acceptance: “let’s see our children, the way they see themselves”.

If you had to take a guess, which brand would you say made this film? Apparel brands like BIBA and Sabhyata have taken social stances through their content in the past, and the film did feature a chunni — maybe it came from one like them. Or, come to think of it, the creator could have been a makeup brand as well. But it is neither.

Somewhat unexpectedly, ‘Mirror’ comes from UNAIDS, a non-profit organisation (NPO or NGO). The film is conceptualised and executed by FCB India:

Yet it resembles the kind of purpose-driven content we are used to seeing from commercial brands. Instead of making visuals of victims and real-life statistics its focus, it utilises storytelling to generate sympathy for its cause. Like the age-old saying, it shows, not tells.

We find this curious. As marketing semioticians, we strongly believe that the solution must fit the challenge, it must be context-appropriate — there is no one-size-fits-all. And surely, the challenge faced by an NPO is different from the one experienced by a commercial brand. So, why the overlap? 

We have picked five pieces of branded content to answer this question. Two from NPOs, including ‘Mirror’ and three from commercial brands. A closer look at them has revealed common intent and three shared story-telling techniques that lie at the core of their videos. This uncovers the reasons for the commonality between commercial brands and NGO communication.

More similarities than differences

It doesn’t matter if the creator is an NGO or a commercial brand. If the goal is consciousness-raising around a cause, the story-telling often follows a similar narrative arc. To highlight a social issue and urge change, the story will need to establish the social issue, the negative consequences of the social issue and how it comes about, viz the connection between the two. The viewer must be clear about what is A, what is B and how A leads to B.

When HUL launched a campaign in 2018, encouraging the urban crowd to save water when bathing, it made sure to demonstrate how the amount of water used to shower by an average city dweller could easily quench the thirst of half a village. To ensure that the message goes through, the company even listed some simple actions the viewer could take to save water, Have a shorter shower. Turn off the tap. Start saving water. Help a village quench its thirst.’ Cause, effect and correlation.

HUL Start a little good – Water:

Similarly, NGO, My Choices Foundation came out with a short film titled ‘Chotu’ that shows the treatment of child labourers in unsettling detail and concludes with ‘1 in 11 children in India works as a child labourer. This Children’s Day, let’s help Chotu get back his childhood. Report at 1800 419 8588.’

Chotu (2020):

The second story-telling technique employed by both NGOs and commercial brands is of separating the public into ‘you’ and ‘them’, ‘you’ being the (hopefully) enlightened viewer and ‘them’ being everyone else. By making this division, it is as if the creators are imploring the viewer: ‘The problem exists/goes unchecked because they do this. Will you also be like them?’ This sole designation of responsibility reframes the viewer from perceiving themselves as just a drop in the ocean, helpless against the force of the multitude, to becoming an active change-maker.

In ‘Mirror’, when the young boy is found displaying gender-questioning behaviour, there is a pause. During this pause, the boy shrinks in expectation of his mother’s anger and the mother steadily looks at the boy — an expression that can be easily mistaken for a precursor to outrage. Before this pause turns into a moment of pleasant surprise, the implication it carries is obvious: if this was a realistic scenario, the parent would have reacted harshly and made their distaste known. So, when the video ends by urging the viewer to be more accepting, the appeal is based on this pause which implies that others are not.

Manforce Condoms’ addresses the viewer similarly.

It shows how children can fall victim to sexual predators online if their activity on the internet goes unsupervised by parents. To wrap the video, it warns, ‘If we don’t keep an eye on our children, someone else will…ICPF data proves the demand for child pornography too has increased by 95% since lockdown…Together let’s be more alert and watchful.

The statistic points to the many parents who have let their children fall prey to grooming and coercion by child molesters and nudges the viewer to evaluate their position in relation to that percentage — will they form part of it or choose to join the vigilant minority?

Manforce | Choti Gudiya | #ProtectChildhood (2020):

The third technique NGOs and commercial brands use to drive their message home is the creation of an impact through surprise or shock. Both try to catch their viewer off-guard, whether it is through an unlikely twist in the story or with a subject they are not used to seeing on screen.

Vicks’ viral film from 2017, ‘Generations of Care’ reveals the adoptive girl’s mother to be a transgender woman after much build-up. She is characterised and positively cast as a warm, nurturing and fun parent before she is shown to belong from a highly discriminated community of India.

Vicks - Generations of Care #TouchOfCare:

My Choices Foundation grabs attention through shock. It springs upon the viewer a vivid film about child abuse on Children’s Day. While the subject matter may feel like a rude jolt from all the cute and colourful messaging that abounds on the day, it definitely helps the film stand out from the crowd.

These similarities arise both from the intent of consciousness-raising and from the story-telling techniques used for the purpose.

The differences between the content created by NPOs and commercial brands are very few and subtle at that.

First; purpose-driven branded content is more likely to highlight the brand as compared to content from an NGO. This could reflect in the number of closing frames that feature the brand’s logo and message. It could also be a simple difference of whether the campaign focuses on the cause or on the brand as a believer and promoter of the cause. You will find the latter illustrated through HUL’s closing of the film on water conservation: ‘Hindustan Unilever, through its initiatives, has managed to save 450 billion litres of water...

Second; branded content from an NGO can afford to be more raw and graphic in its depictions than content from a commercial brand. A commercial brand has to balance out the repulsion it generates by highlighting social evils with the positivity that it needs to maintain. So, it goes easier and suggests the implications rather than showing them frame by frame.

For instance, ‘Chotu’ from NPO My Choices Foundation gets vivid about the treatment of young boys in labour — to the extent that it makes your skin crawl. But ‘Choti Gudiya’ from Manforce Condoms, despite being a rare example of branded content that gets unusually bold, doesn’t go beyond a point to show grooming by an adult male predator.

Wrapping up — Why the overlap in the way they represent themselves in their communication?

NGO brands and commercial brands come from very different worlds and hence would be expected to look, feel and represent themselves very differently. However, we find that both kinds of creators are trying to imitate the other to leverage the benefits that come with playing a different role.

Through cause marketing and purpose-driven communication, commercial brands are trying to position themselves as socially responsible and as agents of consciousness-raising. They are trying to distance themselves from their image as self-interested salesmen and greedy profit-seekers that benefit from fulfilling human needs. Their intent is to represent themselves as good people who seek to make the world, a better place for all. 

By giving the PSAs, ads, public stalls and door-to-door campaigns a rest, NGOs are utilising the method of communication that has allowed commercial brands to enter consumers’ lives without being viewed as an interruption. They are making use of branded content to get their message across without being seen as entities that exist on social margins and guilt-trip people into bringing change.

They are certainly not using this kind of branded content as a one-size-fits-all solution. But it is one of those rare times when a solution for two radically different creators looks the same.