African-Indian bonhomie was all the rage in India’s media last week, amid celebratory coverage of homegrown telecom company Airtel’s $10.7 billion acquisition of Kuwaiti company Zain’s African operations and TV images of Indian visitors blowing vuvuzelas at soccer’s World Cup in South Africa. Amid all the backslapping, however, an African student in India who runs a news and current-affairs website from the city of Bhopal accused companies like Coca-Cola of airing racist commercials on Indian TV that portrayed Africans as primitive savages.
“Indian marketers have a field day in putting ‘blacks’ where they’ve always ‘belonged,’ at least in the average Indian mind-sets,” wrote S.K.Y. Banji, an Ugandan who has lived in India for more than four years and runs thereigntimes.com. His comments were endorsed by fellow Africans who posted on the site, sharing their own experiences of racism in India, and soon Banji’s concerns were being aired in segments of the mainstream media. Yet there was hardly any public outcry, and none of the companies have issued apologies. (See why racist attitudes are so ingrained.)
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One of the commercials in question, for Coca-Cola’s Sprite — which a Coca-Cola spokesperson says was received “very positively” by a test audience in India — shows two young Indian men captured by savages in an African jungle. While one of them tries to win over the captors by doing a silly jig, the other simply offers them Sprite. “There is nothing offensive in this ad,” says Martha Wariithi, a Kenyan by birth who is the director of knowledge and insights for Coca-Cola’s India and South West Asia unit. “It’s lighthearted … It fits very well for the positioning for Sprite in the market.”