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After all the bad press it recently received, Facebook has finally caught a break with its Diwali film. The story of Pooja Milk Centre has been forwarded from phone to phone and has gained more than 14 million YouTube views.

If you haven’t yet got around to watching it, here’s the gist: as head of a milk centre, presumably passed down by her late father, Pooja posts about job openings at her shop when she learns of the large numbers laid off due to the pandemic.

Despite not needing more workers, she takes on tradespeople (electrician, plumber, carpenter, etc.) with no experience in handling and curdling milk — all so that they can continue to earn a living. Right when it seems like this noble gesture will be her shop’s undoing, but she is saved by the recently recruited workers who popularise Pooja’s generosity and the centre through a Facebook video, attracting the mohalla to buy from their business.

Brand films that show the enlightened side of humanity always make for a reassuring watch, essentially saying, ‘goodness still resides in the world’. In a setup, where we spend our time rushing from one commitment to another, numb to the emotional ups and downs of life outside our bubble, these films demand our focus (and our tears), putting us in tune with our emotions and with the society we live in.

Ever since brands cracked the formula, such films have grown in number, especially in the festive season, with the latest seeming only so different from the one before it. There is an entire genre of Diwali do-good, feel-good films that brands make and put out.  What then has made Facebook’s ‘More Together - Pooja Didi’ stand out despite basically being another ‘Diwali-do-good’ film?

It’s the same, yet different

At its core, the storyline is the same. It presents an everyday hero with a moral conscience stronger than that of the average person. It’s about the rare individual who can’t see things go wrong without feeling moved enough to bring about change.

Released to mark the festive season, it also aligns with themes commonly observed in Diwali/festive ads made during this period: community as the backbone of the social fabric; festivals being able to briefly close up economic and social divides; and humanity as the capacity to notice and address another’s needs.

With all these basic ingredients thrown in, yet, the film feels different.

The primary reason is because, unlike many festive films, Facebook’s film feels authentic.

The local flavour is believably captured, where actors execute roles and dialogues without overdoing them (watch other films from this season to see why this point is worth mentioning) and not all found in a Punjabi town are Sikh. The narrative’s placement in a Sikh culture, given its Karseva tradition, also helps with credibility.

The film doesn’t show people walking around without masks, with a disclaimer claiming creative licence. Set in a small town, it shows the inhabitants’ navigation of safety measures exactly as seen in real life: holding a mask/cloth to the face when needed; pulling down the mask when speaking to someone thought to be uninfected; crowding around stalls despite the pandemic; and even hanging the mask around one ear when fatigued from wearing it.

Secondly, the longer format (seven minutes and 23 seconds!) is a bold move.  The length ensures that, unlike other ads and branded content films, viewers have the chance to emotionally invest in the video like they do with a movie. It allows a greater mix of emotions to play out where aside from tear-jerkers, there’s tension, conflict and good-natured humour.

With a 3-4-minute duration, conventional long-format ads/content films aren’t able to bring complexity to their ‘do good’ narratives. Their conscientious characters are almost always supported in their thoughtful gestures by the surrounding figures.  There are no obstacles and no opposition.

Take Oppo’s #BeTheLight, where the young protagonist’s efforts are encouraged by his teacher, and the teacher’s attentiveness rewarded by his own mother:

Or Surf Excel’s campaign #AbLagRahiDiwali from 2016, where a young boy’s messy yet considerate attempt to brighten his presswala’s Diwali is furthered by his mother bringing over sweets:

In contrast, Facebook’s Diwali film shows Pooja circumventing discouragement from different secondary characters — her exasperated brother, the voice of reason and practicality who urges her to let the extra workers go, and a customer who refuses to buy sub-standard paneer made by a newly initiated worker, loudly commenting on the falling standards.

It is her success despite the odds that gives viewers something substantive to root for and emotionally invest in.

The last yet crucial point of differentiation comes from Facebook’s choice to depict selflessness and not charity.

In ‘do good’ Diwali ads, kindness is often extended from the socially and economically privileged to the disadvantaged section of society, and the gesture never makes a dent in the former’s resources. But here, when Pooja offers support, she does it at the cost of her own financial stability — including selling off her car. It involves far greater commitment and sacrifice than goes into gifting your domestic help:

Even later, when Pooja is rescued from her financial crisis, it is not by a bungalow-owning benefactor but by her own community. There is an egalitarian and empowered sense to the cycle of assistance rather than being a favour done by the rich.

In the final analysis…

The film reflects well on Facebook as a brand, its values and what it stands for.

An effective exercise in damage control, it shows the platform as an enabler of good and draws focus away from oft-repeated accusations of data manipulation and ineffective monitoring of fake news. And perhaps there’s another subtle message: Facebook only amplifies the pre-existing. It is a reflection of society. If the people do good, then the platform does good.

Their storyline is not a far-fetched sell either. As seen from the Baba ka Dhaba incident (although that took a disappointing turn), galvanising the public for social good through social media is not only possible but also surprisingly easy.

Pooja’s story also shows brands that successful storytelling lies in tapping into the grassroots and touching a local chord (like Fevicol’s popular visual of village dwellers piled onto a bus). As Bollywood has shown, the glittery narrative with superstars playing the rich no longer overpowers the audience. Viewers wish to watch the average person going about their daily lives while making a difference, as the light dispelling darkness metaphor of Diwali.

(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.)