Are Marketers Leading us off a Precipice?

We’ve all heard the story of the boiled frog. The one that’s so comfortable in a pot of water, that’s being slowly heated, that it cooks to death. Wikipedia claims that the scientific evidence for such a boiled frog scenario is contradictory at best. But the metaphor’s worked well enough for innumerous editorial writers, from the Cold War to climate change. In keeping with this hoary tradition, I’m compelled to warn of an impending doom – my own personal amphibian aquatic tipping point – that is close upon us.

It is one, alas, that is perpetrated, aided, abetted by marketers.

I speak not of Lady Gaga or boy bands (though they are bad enough, I can tell you, as the parent of two teen girls) but of nothing less than the beginning of the end of Indian civilization. And if we fall, can the rest of the world be far behind?

I know that for at least several thousand years, since the start of the Kali Yug, we have been proclaiming the fall of Indian civilization. More recently, the tearing down of the Babri Masjid, the riots in Gujarat and weekly news of the Naxal attacks in middle India seem indicative of an imminent civilizational demise. And I am sure that between the Shiv Sena, the MNS, and the Telengana agitators – along with their lesser known brethren from Assam to Tamil Nadu — various people of dubious motives are busy chipping away at the edifice of what our ancestors have built.

Yet, as an optimist, I have not let any of this even bother me, let alone drag me down.

Not a bit. And here’s why. First, we now actually have an identity of being Indian rather than merely Madrasis or Gujaratis or Thakurs from Ballia! This is in itself worth celebrating. And more than Akbar or the British Raj, it is Bollywood, cricket and Pakistan that have been the primary contributors to the creation of this new pan-Indian identity.

Yes, we attack one another, at times kill a number of our fellow citizens gruesomely and get away with it as well. I’d argue, though, that we are doing this at much lower rates than we have historically.

Of course, the trucks plying our highways continue to kill far more people with far less provocation. We possess a unique ability to be rude to one another while driving or jostling in queues. The need to grease palms for nearly anything may even be growing. Our public spaces are littered with garbage and graffiti. Our parks, such as they are, are encroached on by politicians. Our rivers, despite the reverence we allegedly hold them in, are polluted.

But these are all problems that can be fixed. We still keep our homes clean, we continue to show respect to our elders in private and at times in public. We believe education is important as is saving for the future. We continue to volunteer to help the poor, the needy and the very many who are challenged one way or another. We have a newfound confidence in ourselves, in our identities as Indians. We are, in many ways, irrepressible.

All this had kept me hopeful about our continued growth and prosperity.

Repeat: Had.

The first time I saw six young lasses sitting in a circle at the local mall, each texting or talking to someone who was not in the circle, is when I glimpsed the beginning of the end. Soon it seemed that at no occasion were people, not merely youngsters, ever in the present. Be it at the movies (“Hello, I’m watching My Name is Khan…”), a classical music concert or even at dinner at a restaurant with their family.

Marketers, the same people who have caused the littering of every corner of our nation with the detritus of one rupee plastic sachets, have gotten the water boiling.

I realized it when I saw the invasion of flat panel advertising in every remaining social space. Be it the local Cafe Coffee Day, Chinese or Punjabi restaurant and, oh no, my local hole-in-the-wall tea stall. Finally, even eye contact, which was the only thing left after the cell phone onslaught, has been done away with.

So you have a family of four, the wife on a call with her friend, the boy busy with his iPhone, the girl watching Katrina Kaif slithering across the screen and Dad trying hard not to drool, even as he keeps an eye on his Blackberry.

The out-of-home advertising flatscreen. God help us all.

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