From Devendra Jhajharia to Deepa Malik: Why are brands not celebrating India's Paralympic stars?

Would you see a blade runner in an advertisement in India, for instance, endorsing a malt drink or an energy drink or anything that most celebrities do routinely in advertisements? A Nike ad released around June 2016 featured athletes from other sports but needed cine star Deepika Padukone in it to attract eyeballs. The advertisement went viral on internet.

The Rio 2016 Paralympic Games got India two golds, a silver and a bronze medal – four medals in all. Devendra Jhajharia, the gold medallist in javelin, had won a gold medal at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens too. But where are the cars or the endorsement or the national level jubilations for the Paralympic winners? We have not one but two Olympic gold winners in 2016. The only gold medalist we have in Olympics so far is shooter Abhinav Bindra.

India's Devendra Jhajharia competes in the men's javelin throw F46 final. AP

India's Devendra Jhajharia competes in the men's javelin throw F46 final. AP

It is true and often acknowledged that except for cricket, rarely do other sports and sportsmen get the kind of attention that cricket does in India. However, some of our Olympic winners have been in the spotlight for some time and some of the participants have had films made on them like Milkha Singh and Mary Kom, for instance.

The kind of rush and excitement that has come the way of Olympic winners and participants, deservedly so, is lacking and is almost lukewarm when it comes to Paralympic participants and winners.

State governments have given encouragement and prize money for the Paralympic winners. For instance, Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalitha announced a cash prize of Rs 2 crore to Mariyappan Thangavelu who won gold medal at the Rio Paralympics.

The Paralympic winners haven’t created excitement among brands and perhaps that is why corporates have not been proactive about using them for their brands.

“At some level we don’t equate Olympics and Paralympics at the same level. They are not the same deal,” an official with a company said, requesting anonymity. He said that at one level there is not much knowledge of Paralympics except for the fact that there were gold winners this time. But the fact is India had a gold medal winner in Devendra Jhajhariya in 2004, too. "But we do not even know anything much of these games and lesser still of Winter Olympics. We do not know the stature of the Paralympics," he says.

There is no legacy as such that any Indian can touch base with the Paralympics like with Olympics, for instance, says the official. India won its first gold in Olympics for hockey in 1928. But though there have been medal winners at Paralympics, there hasn’t been awareness on a national scale, he pointed out. “We don’t seem to attach as much importance to Paralympics and hence excitement is muted,” the official says.

Advertisers as a rule, says an advertising professional, prefer to use people who project aspirational qualities. “For instance, an athlete who can run faster and is quicker than most of us is a person most of us can connect with.”

The differently abled athlete, who has displayed grit, tenacity and done something that most of us can’t, can at best be inspirational. And that is not a fit that most advertisers can repeat or find favour with their products, says the advertising professional. “Advertising looks at typically more ambitious qualities that can resonate with the masses,” she says.

That is true too. Most of the atheletes we know of through advertisements is because we have seen them or read about their achievements. Advertising has not made use of a differently abled athelete in India, so far. “I agree people should consider featuring them in advertisements,” says advertising guru Piyush Pandey, executive chairman and national creative director of Ogilvy & Mather India and vice-chairman of O&M Asia-Pacific.

He says that the differently-abled atheletes' qualities are up there [more than at par with Olympians] to be acknowledged and sung praises to – simply because they have achieved what they have in spite of their physical challenges. “I wonder why it did not occur to me,” says Pandey.

But times have changed for India which is being seen as a place for investments, start-ups, and various other achievements which the West wants to capitalise on. Perhaps Indian corporate will look at its Paralympic winners and host them in advertisements.

Harish Bijoor, Chief Executive Officer of brand and business strategy firm Harish Bijoor Consults Inc, sees the day that is not too far when the Paralympic winners will be featured in advertisements. “I think there is scope for using the current set of winners because of the change in values. Brands are becoming politically correct in their stances and focus on inclusion and are not exclusion.

“Though, I would not like to see the athletes being used for their handicap. I would like to see them as true champions and there is plenty of opportunity for them, too,” says Bijoor. He suggests that agents who handle megastars should make a beeline and represent the Paralympic winners.

Films on physical or mental handicaps resonate with the public because they are enacted by popular stars. These films make an impact on the box office and the films are remembered and recalled fondly. But this seems a tribute reserved only for celluloid.

“We have been a hollow economy and cosmetic-oriented and not solidly- oriented in marketing,” says Bijoor. He feels that any brand with an emotive appeal like malt drinks could get the Paralympic champions to convey their brand affinity.

Alpana Parida, Managing Director, DY Works, a Mumbai-based brand strategy and brand design, says one of the reasons she believes that differently-abled people are not featured in advertisements is that there is “a deep rooted bias against ‘imperfection’ and this manifests in our attitudes towards the disabled. But Parida feels that these biases are getting broken down with brands resonating progressive attitudes like second marriages, men sharing housework, fathers enabling daughters, for instance. Thus, she believes, it won’t be too long before we see differently-abled winners of India’s glory at the Paralympics being featured in advertisements that echo with the values they represent as champions.

Earlier, IndusInd Bank had launched a programme - IndusInd Umang, for the athletes who qualified for the prestigious global games at the Rio Paralympics. "As a country, cricket is our most familiar and popular sport," says Anil Ramachandran, Chief Marketing Officer, IndusInd Bank, adding that the Paralympic winners need to get front page space in newspapers like other sportsmen and women and brand endorsements just like them.

"These winners can create a niche for every brand as they embody rich values of grit, ability to overcome adversity and have brought glory at the highest sporting levels in India." If these qualities and attributes do not resonate with brands, what will?

Updated Date: Sep 19, 2016 16:22 PM