Social Throwback 2023: The biggest controversies in Indian marketing

From calls for boycotts to influencer endorsements, several incidents have surfaced, shaping the landscape of advertising and marketing practices in the country in 2023. We recap a few of them.

Shamita Islur
New Update
controversies in Indian marketing

While the advertising and marketing (A&M) industry in India has witnessed experimentation and innovations, it hasn’t fallen short on controversies that have ignited public debates, boycott calls, and legal interventions. 

Take the FMCG sector for example. Every once in a while, huge brands within the sector have been called out for their misleading labelling of ingredients and the way they are marketed to consumers. 

While the company Nestle came under the scanner a few years ago for its unhealthy Maggi Noodles, the year commenced with a viral Instagram video by Revant Himatsingka, aka Foodpharmer, calling out Mondelez's brand Bournvita for its ingredients. Similarly, it is also coming to an end with the brand Patanjali’s court case for its misleading advertisements. 

From calls for boycotts to influencer endorsements, several incidents have surfaced, shaping the landscape of marketing and advertising practices in the country in 2023. Here are a few of them so that we can look back at some mistakes and learn from them.

Bournvita vs. Foodpharmer

As per its label, every serving of Bournvita has 7.5 gms of sugar, corresponding to one and a half teaspoons. Since the recommended limit for a young child is about six teaspoons, it implies that one serving of the drink accounts for a quarter of a child's daily quota of sugar. Considering the brand markets itself as healthy, this was concerning.

Bringing this to attention was the viral Instagram video by Revant Himatsingka (known as Foodpharmer) in early 2023, critiquing Bournvita's alleged health claims. In the reel, Himatsingka said that some of these ingredients were harmful. 

The brand served him a legal notice, following which he took the video down. This didn’t deter the bad attention the brand had received and months after the controversy, the brand has now reduced the quantity of added sugar by 14.4%. 

Himatsingka took to Instagram and shared the news. His caption read, “Big win! Probably the first time in history that an Instagram Reel led to a food giant reducing its sugar content! One video resulted in a 15% reduction in sugar. Imagine if all Indians started reading food labels. Companies wouldn't dare falsely market themselves.”

Himatsingka's critique has highlighted the influence and responsibility of health and wellness influencers.



MakeMyTrip's misguided ad

MakeMyTrip faced public criticism due to a poorly timed print ad during the India-Pakistan World Cup match. The print ad seemed to give ‘An Open Invitation To Pakistani Fans’ offering them discounts if they lost the match. The ad, seemed to mock former Pakistani cricketers, using phrases uttered by them which made the public question the brand's marketing move.

Users went online to criticise the ad stating how horrible it was and that India is not a ‘sporting nation’ but a ‘sparring nation’. 



Starbucks and Pride 

In a bid to become more inclusive, coffee brand Starbucks released a trans-inclusive pride ad, ‘It Starts With Your Name’ which shows a couple meeting their transgender daughter after a long time. It goes on to show the father accepting his transgender daughter.



While meant to be in good taste, it faced backlash and criticism from netizens who accused the brand of imposing 'Western ideologies' on Indian culture. The brand ended up removing the ad after boycott calls.

Bharat Matrimony's bold stand

In another example, the matrimonial brand, Bharat Matrimony found itself at the centre of controversy for its Holi-themed ad that aimed at shedding light on violence against women during the festival. 



The brand got trolled with calls for boycott for creating an ad addressing the issue during a Hindu festival when it could have released the ad for any other topical event. Despite facing opposition and boycott calls, the brand stood firm and didn’t take the ad down.

Swiggy Instamart's Holi billboard

On the other hand, Swiggy Instamart faced accusations of being ‘Hinduphobic’ due to a Holi-themed billboard that was interpreted by some as offensive. 

The billboards featured eggs and read, ‘Omelette; Sunny side-up; Kisi ke sarr par. #BuraMatKhelo. Get Holi essentials on Instamart’. The brand aimed to promote the consumption of eggs instead of wasting them by smashing them on someone's head during the festival. 



This led to criticism with hashtags saying #HinduPhobicSwiggy, and the delivery platform took the billboards down in the Delhi-NCR region.

Volkswagen's Dusshera ad

On the occasion of Dusshera, German auto manufacturer Volkswagen released an ad featuring actors portraying Ram and Ravan in a light-hearted scene. The ad showcases Ram driving a Volkswagen Virtus as he offers Ravan a lift.

Ravan sits in the back seat to accommodate his ten heads, smiling as he fastens his seatbelt. The ad gives a message of 'Let the good in you drive away evil.’



While some appreciated its light-hearted approach, others questioned the appropriateness of portraying a religious figure in a commercial context. 

Zomato's misfire with Kachra

On World Environment Day, food delivery app Zomato released an ad featuring Aditya Lakhia, the actor who plays 'Kachra' in the 2001 movie 'Lagaan'. 




The campaign titled ‘Zomato recycles Kachra feat. Kachra as Kachra’ featured Lakhia's character named 'Kachra' in the film as items made from recyclable waste or kachra. The campaign was slammed for drawing comparisons between objects and waste and the marginalised character.

The widespread criticism for its insensitive portrayal followed a subsequent apology and withdrawal of the ad by the brand.

Lotus365’s surrogate advertising

The prevalent issue of surrogate advertising took a new turn in 2023 as Lotus365, an unauthorized betting app, continued to leverage high-profile celebrity endorsements. The betting app was officially banned in India in February 2023 by the Ministry of Electronics and IT (MeitY). The ban was imposed under the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, which banned 138 Chinese-affiliated betting platforms, including Lotus 365. Although Lotus 365 claims to be licensed by the government of Curacao, this license is not recognized by the Indian government, making the app an illegal betting platform in India.

Despite this ban, the app's endorsements raised concerns about influencer content and regulatory compliance as celebrities like Govinda, Sunil Shetty, Bigg Boss 15 winner Tejasswi Prakash, and many others endorsed it. 

Patanjali and misleading advertisements

In November, Baba Ramdev's Patanjali Ayurveda products faced legal repercussions as the Supreme Court reprimanded the brand for false claims to cure diseases in its advertisements. The petition against the brand was filed by IMA stating that Patanjali was spreading a smear campaign against the COVID-19 vaccine. 

It strictly asked the brand to ‘stop misleading advertisements’, further adding that the apex court will impose ‘INR 1 crore cost on every product claiming false cure’.

According to media channels, in response to SC's order, Baba Ramdev defended Patanjali by stating that the FMCG brand has not engaged in any false propaganda. He further said, "SC said that if you do false propaganda, then you will be fined [However] we respect SC. But we are not doing any false propaganda."

These controversies in the Indian A&M landscape throughout 2023 highlight the power, responsibility, and challenges faced by brands, influencers, and advertisers in navigating societal, cultural, and legal intricacies while promoting their products and messages. 


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