advertising, social responsibility

The Old Man And The Agarbattis

I think that, at some point, advertising professionals grow tired of earning megabucks for their clients.

It’s not always a conscious thing, I feel. But at some point, we’d like to hear our clients say, “Okay, we’ve earned so many trillion bucks this year selling soap. Now let’s give something back.”

And then we try to do something about it.

Some shining examples. Lowe Lintas is unofficially known as the ‘social cause’ agency. We have three brands (at last count) that champion social issues. I have had the good fortune, for the last three years, to work on Tata Tea, which has made awakening people its mission. It’s a matter of pride to know that you helped give India 600,000-plus new voters.

Indra Sinha, one of advertising’s legendary copywriters, who emerged during a golden age period in the 80s and 90s. A Colaba boy, like me, based in the UK and France, Sinha was voted one of the top 10 British copywriters of all time. But what sets him apart from the pack is that, during his career, he did some stunning recruitment and fundraising work campaigns for the London Police and Amnesty International. His raving, ranting ad blaming British citizens for the Kurdish genocide shocks readers even today – it shocked me when I read it in The Copy Book. It also helped garner record funding for Amnesty. Sinha then quit advertising to become an author and activist, advocating full-time the issues he’d become involved with during his career.

Three years of working on Tata Tea have, I think, turned me into a more socially responsible citizen. At home I try to waste less. I try to get my brands to take up larger causes. I get excited when an energy brand says it wants to talk about the good it is doing for people and the environment. I give more to charity than I used to. I’m more aware of peoples’ plights. Watching the show The West Wing has helped immensely too.

Where is all this going?

If you ever visit Badshah Kulfi at Crawford Market late at night, you will see an old, frail, emaciated man, shabbily dressed, tottering around the place, a heavy plastic bag slung over his shoulder.

He doesn’t beg. No. Instead he moves slowly from car to car, shuffling his feet in little steps, trying to get Badshah’s patrons to buy agarbattis from him at twelve bucks a packet.

When he does find a buyer, his face creases with concentration as he tries to sort out his packets. It’s difficult for him to do even this simple task – his hands and fingers tremble, making it difficult to grasp a packet of agarbattis.

It’s wrong. It’s just so wrong that a man who’s at least 70 has to walk the streets at night trying to make some money to live off.

What is commendable is that he isn’t begging – he’s selling agarbattis. I tend to overpay him a bit – but he at least keeps his dignity.

My wife and I wonder why he’s out on the streets. Have his kids kicked him out (and he seems like he’s carrying that sadness with him)? Has he lost his family? Does he have no home? Is he being exploited? What is his story?

And, most, importantly, how can we get him off the streets?

The next time we go to Badshah’s, we will talk to him. We’ll try and learn his story. And then we’ll see if there’s something we can do about it. Even if it’s just about buying him a warm jacket to help tide over this winter.

In the meanwhile, we’re going to figure if we can donate some money to old-age homes. Through the Lowe Lintas Give India programme, and otherwise too. For all those old folks we haven’t seen at Badshah’s.

If you have any other ideas, or would like to help, do let me know. It’s a cause worth fighting for.

Please share this post with others you know. Spread the word. Click the ReTweet button. Share it on Facebook. On Digg. On Reddit. Over email. Over the phone.

Because y0u sure as hell wouldn’t want to see anyone you loved in that old man’s shoes.


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