Pepsi’s New Ad Appropriates Students’ Unequal Battle against Saffronisation of Education
Editor’s note: After the objections of the FTII students to the latest Pepsi ad mocking students protests, Pepsico has responded saying the ad did not refer to FTII but the placards shown in the ad opposes fee hike in a college. This justification raises more questions than it answers. Ridiculing student protests when the youth of this country face severe onslaughts on all fronts remains deeply problematic. Here is an online petition that some concerned students have floated.
I recently switched on the TV to find that a new Pepsi ad was playing on loop on the Tata Sky home channel. I usually do not wait to see such filler ads, but a loud united chant of “hosh theekaane aayega” immediately caught my attention, and I waited to watch the full advertisement.
I saw a massive strength of students raising the slogan: “Jab student awaaz uthaayega, tab hosh theekaane aayega” [when students raise voice, the senses (of those in positions of power) will become alright]. Several students could be seen holding up placards that said “Stop Fee Hike” and “Education is Not for Sale”. The students were clad in black kurtas (Ranjhaana sure has managed to stereotype student activists in the country) with blue bands tied on their arms on which ‘Justice’ had been printed. Given that the students in the country are gearing up to resist the government plans to yield to WTO diktats which would put the entire higher education system on sale for once and for all as a tradable service, I couldn’t be any less curious about what course the ad will take. Since the ad was on loop, ‘Pepsi’ was being flashed on the screen as the title of the current programme! Somewhere even in those brief seconds of the first few shots, I felt uneasy: Was it going to be another Vogue ‘my choice’, or Tata tea ‘Jaago re’ kind of appropriation? Yet appropriations are usually smart, they don’t challenge much while only pretending to challenge a lot. Here the placards reading ‘No to sale of Education’ and ‘No to fee hike’ were only too obvious. The challenge could not have been any less straightforward.
But then since when did a multinational aerated cola drink company that neither quenches thirst nor offers good health but is only a fizzy amalgamation of some not so healthy chemicals suddenly become so interested in the struggle against privatization of education? I didn’t have to wait long to see what happened next. In the midst of agitating students chanting slogans, a student leader informs a journalist that following the refusal of the administration to address students’ concerns, the ongoing hunger strike of the students of the past four days will now be turned into an indefinite hunger strike. He emphasizes that none of the students gathered there will have a morsel of food or even a drop of water. Suddenly all attention is turned towards one of the agitating students who having spotted a bottle of Pepsi in a fellow students’ bag, suddenly picks it up and begins to gulp it down (with appropriate gulping down soundtrack playing in midst of sudden silence), of course forgetting the cause, the movement and the just announced hunger strike. As the visibly embarrassed student leader and a confused journalist pose a questioning glance at him, he replies with utmost casualness – “pepsi thi yaar, pee gaya” [It was Pepsi, I drank it]/ Suddenly, all attention is diverted from the movement and the journalist turns back to the camera to apparently dismiss the agitation, while the student leader is seen making desperate attempts to salvage the situation.
Yes, we were spared another pretentious attempt at selective appropriation of some of the popular anti-establishment sentiments without really challenging much. We were also spared the emotionally charged campaigns that seem to suggest that cola drinks are the way to world peace and universal harmony. Mercifully we always escaped the high pitched screams that make ‘rebellion without a cause’ fashionable. For once, there is a Pepsi Ad which perhaps is about as honest as Pepsi can ever get. No false promises of health, taste, happiness, togetherness with friends, world peace, revolution, societal change, sports acumen or stardom. Only a clear, loud, and an unapologetic disdain of students’ concerns and their struggles! My reaction post watching the ad was one of wonderment – should I be glad that they said what they truly felt or should I worry that they actually thought that making fun of students’ issues and movements will garner them a generous amount of applause and supportive laughs? Today, when students’ movements across the world and here in India against ill-informed educational programmes like the FYUP, partisan appointments, moral policing, violation of social justice provisions, and assaults on campus democracy and privatization of education have become more widespread and visible, what made the advertising agency so smugly self-assured that an advertisement that ridicules these movements and makes fun of student activists would be appreciated and result in increased sales? It may be noted the ad chooses to mock not those student leaders or perhaps goons for whom student politics is a play of money and muscle power, but those who nurture the vision of affordable education for all.
At times when the future of an entire generation of students is at stake because soon higher education may become an unaffordable luxury, at times when an entire generation of students like their preceding generation is doomed to stay excluded from the benefits of higher education as provisions of social justice will have no space in privatized education, at times when thousands of students are taking on the might of the state to defend their right to secular and quality education, it is perhaps only such brute corporate sharks that can dare to bring out such ads. It is almost as if they are throwing a challenge before the students and the youth of this nation – we have what it takes to divert you, to throw you off the course of pro-student and pro-oppressed struggles, to tempt you with temporary pleasures up on sale, to convince you that the unequal and unjust world is here to stay, to sell you rose tinted glasses from which the world looks just about fine, to offer you blinkers, to make direct attempts to sabotage, to even get a sizeable population to scorn at your idealism and dream of a better world, and to never let the media that depends on us for revenue ever see the world from your vantage point! Can you still continue? And for how long?
Having been a part of the left student movement, and currently witnessing the more determined strides it is making now, I have no doubt as to what the resounding reply of the student community would be. In fact, somewhere I do believe that it is the resounding clamour of “hokkolorob”, “pinjra tod”, “social justice long live” and several other slogans of the progressive student movement that have forced these corporate giants to take notice, feel disturbed and launch such a mocking offensive!
Shivani Nag is currently an Assistant Professor of Psychology in Ravenshaw University. Shivani has been an activist with All India Students Association (AISA) in her student days.
This article originally appeared here.