Lost opportunities: Mahatma Gandhi and Gwen Thompson

To most people, Mahatma Gandhi stands for truth and non-violence. There is also a subtext of renunciation, austerity, simplicity and community. There was a predictable outcry when Montblanc announced a limited edition, 18 carat gold pen with Gandhi’s image and a saffron garnet on the clip. Only 241 gold pens would be made available for the price of Rs1.1M (or $23,000, €15,800, £14,400). Gandhi walked 241 miles in the Salt March of the 1930s.

Gandhi’s great grandson Tushar Gandhi had opposed the auction of Gandhi’s spectacles earlier in the year. He however sees nothing wrong with the pen and his charity will receive a small sum from each pen sold. Montblanc’s CEO says the company wanted to talk about Mahatma Gandhi’s values including non-violence, peace, education and tolerance. There is now, however, a court case in India for Montblanc’s violation of the Emblems and Names (Prevention of Improper Use) Act, 1950 which specifically cites Gandhi’s image. So much for discussing Gandhian values – between commerce, marketing, image rights, blame and counter-blame.

Let’s talk about Gwen Thompson then. She is a doll launched by the American Girl Doll company in 2009 and costs $95. What’s so special about Gwen? Well she is homeless and lives in a shelter with her mother. Her deadbeat father has apparently abandoned them. Beside the obvious ‘homeless people cannot spend $95 on a doll’ argument, the doll faces other flak too such as portraying men as irresponsible, women as helpless and the fact that some people are homeless as just another reality of society.

American Girl Doll company, who will not be donating any proceeds from the sale of the doll to shelters or charities helping the homeless, says: “Our singular goal with these stories is to help girls find their inner star by becoming kind, compassionate and loving people who make a positive and meaningful difference in the world around them.”

The similarity between both stories is that companies sought – whether strategically or as an after-thought – to spark a broad conversation about certain values. And that the way they went about it backfired. The companies look cynical and exploitative and their noble explanations a hasty ex post rationalisation.

Why? In Montblanc’s case, they have misread how Gandhi’s memory is revered in India. I say this with confidence as an Indian who also recognises the cynicism which makes it legitimate for some to exploit the Gandhi name more than for others. But in the case of the American Girl Doll company, I only offer a working hypothesis. The company underestimated the conflict between the American value of self-help and the collective guilt a society feels about not helping its unfortunate members enough.

Leaving aside the question of taste, in both cases, genuine opportunities were lost for the brands to get more real, more involved with the issues at hand. With my sceptical hat on, I would not be surprised to know if both companies are secretly rubbing their hands in glee over the free publicity and dialogue generated about them and their products. Very Skokie-like. Not very smart.

So, should companies not touch some topics and some people? That is definitely not my suggestion. But it is wise to pick the person, the message, the timing, the marketing message and any beneficiaries carefully. All public conversation should not be sought or courted. Sometimes the best conversations are those that are private, low-key and purposeful without publicity.

Related reading:

Gandhi sells and how (from India Today; may require registration)

Top 10 Dubious Toys where no. 1 is Homeless American Girl (from Time magazine)

Beyond privilege: managing information asymmetries

5 thoughts on “Lost opportunities: Mahatma Gandhi and Gwen Thompson

  1. SY,
    The apt conclusion for the MG episode is with your sceptical hat on. MB knew a controversy would be created and nothing much would happen.
    -Nikhil

    @Nikhil: Thanks. Should there have been a controversy at all? Or are you hinting at what Camus said: “Too many have dispensed with generosity to practice charity”?

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  2. It is difficult to comprehend how companies can’t understand the consequences of their actions.

    With the MB Gandhi Pen – it was more derision – how stupid can you (MB) be kind of derision

    With the Gwen Thomson doll – they can get away with the claim that it is limited period merchandise that is part of an overall content strategy – books, film etal . It doesn’t make it any less offensive, but ….

    in both cases, it seems like management expected a) not to be caught b) the world at large to telepathically understand their intentions.

    @Harini: Thanks. I think sometimes companies do understand the consequences but deliberately seek to court a certain kind of discourse. I am not sure if “all PR is good PR” still applies in the Web 2.0 era! There is of course the inevitable back-pedalling, or seeking to reinvent the story and the intent, both of which further insult the intelligence of and patronise customers. Not wise.

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  3. Any doll purporting to teach social/moral values which costs the ridiculous sum of $95 is going to upset a lot of people from the start- the Gwen Thompson doll is just a particularly offensive example of what American Girl does. People who go looking for bad American Girl dolls to complain about are trying to get at the company, I think. Personally I can’t stand what they do in terms of exploiting peer-pressure and lock girls into their world/ value system. But I’m not sure attacking individual dolls is the best way to make that point.

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  4. Hmmmmm.

    Ramachandra Guha, in a piece in today’s Hindustan Times, (https://www.hindustantimes.com/Hardselling-Gandhi/H1-Article1-461986.aspx) feels – and rightly, I believe – that Tushar is nothing but an opportunist who has hijacked MKG’s legacy.

    While there can be no doubt that the American Girl Doll Co handled this very badly, can we for a moment ask how people would’ve reacted if they had come up with, say, a Barbie-like clone (even without the out-of-this-planet physical dimensions of Barbie)? People would have called it elitist, out of sync with reality and something that perpetuated a very cloistered view of the world. So some bright spark (with all the right degrees) at AGD must’ve have hit upon this idea – a ‘real’ doll, based on what children probably see around them.

    Of course, you’re completely right about it being a lost opportunity. It is. They didn’t implement the idea right. Can you imagine the PR coup if they had announced a part of the sales going to a charity for the homeless? The $95 price-tag wouldn’t have invited such criticism then. People regularly pay a premium for green products, for example.

    Good idea, bad communication, bad implementation.

    Cheers,

    Quirky Indian

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