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Kanika Datta: All the Good Life that's fit to print

Kanika Datta  |  New Delhi 

Kanika Datta

The day after Mohammad Akhlaq was lynched in his home, a Delhi daily carried a photograph of his grieving widow and daughter on its website edition to accompany the report on the incident. It was a poignant frame set against a bare wall and it captured the numb disbelief at their predicament. It needed no comment.

Ironically, it acquired one, though not the kind any editor would have ever sanctioned. A patch across the bottom of photo highlighted a tagline that was, quite unwittingly, a cruel parody of the Akhlaq family's tragedy. "Have the Best Time of Your Life," it read in a racy font, the better to advertise the virtues of an SUV.

Almost as unknowingly insensitive was the banner that ran across the top of the web page. It was an ad of an insurance company whose products ensured the safety and security of the family (plus obligatory photo of a model Indian upper middle class happy family).

It's the kind of unfortunate juxtaposition between ad and news story for which no one can strictly be blamed. It was not planned that way because, bar that beast called "paid news", editorial and advertising layouts are rarely coordinated.

Still, in an era in which the media business faces a credibility crunch like never before, such dissonances may be more than worth a thought by both media houses and corporations. Till the nineties, the trade-off was between subscription and advertising. Since then, with subscription revenues stagnating, the discourse has become about setting the boundaries of advertising.

Or not. Today, for instance, only readers of a certain age will comment when the front page of their daily paper begins on page 5 (and sometimes even page 9!), the masthead (once considered inviolable, sacred space) is suborned to corporate campaigns and ad text leaks into the news columns.

On websites and hand-held devices - reportedly the fastest growing segments in the advertising market - it's pretty much open season. With reason; internet and mobile device users are middle class and rich Indians, the captive market for a range of products from SUVs, finance, lingerie, toiletries and so on. From the subliminal flash to the pop-up ads that zag across the copy and run along photographs, the opportunities for online publicity are endless.

Thus, the patch below the photograph on a lead story is premium property as far as the advertising rupee goes. So is the space above the masthead. Both were no doubt pre-sold by hard-working media marketing executives and gratefully accepted by media houses.

Yet, every so often, the bizarre contrasts of the kind described above can occur. In Ways of Seeing, the BBC TV series that was published as a book, John Berger, critic, writer and artist, drew attention to a Sunday Times Magazine edition of 1971. The contents page of June 6 carried a quarter-page photo of a refugee family in Bangladesh to accompany a photo-feature titled "The Road from Bangla Desh (sic)".

It showed an emaciated refugee couple clutching two starving children. Below was an extravagant half-page ad for a bubble bath brand called Badedas. It portrayed a model, her shapely towel-clad back a mocking contrast to the grimy folds of the refugee woman's sari in the photo above, looking out at a healthy, muscular young man standing in a manicured garden. The difference between the two couples could not have been starker. "Things happen after a Badedas bath," the tagline read, oblivious to the tragic "things" that must have happened to the homeless Bangladeshi couple as a result of the war with Pakistan.

"The shock of such contrasts is considerable: not only because of the coexistence of the two worlds shown, but also because of the cynicism of the culture which shows them one above the other," Mr Berger wrote, arguing that although the juxtaposition was not planned, the text and photographs taken in Bangladesh and for the advertisement, the layouts and so on were produced by the same culture. The same, sadly, can be said for Akhlaq's murder, the SUV assembled in an Indian factory and the ad that appeared on the photograph.

Interestingly, Mr Berger added, advertisers in that era were aware of, at the very least, the commercial dangers of such random juxtapositions to consider using less brash and more sombre images. It is not known when this awareness dissipated, as it manifestly has. In India, such sensitivity is all but absent. But in one of the world's most unequal countries, it would do the media a power of good if it acquired some.

First Published: Wed, November 04 2015. 21:48 IST