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