Branding the Mahatma: The Untimely Provocation of Gandhian Publicity

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This essay is an exploration of the relationship between Mahatma Gandhi as a contested figure in present-day Indian public culture and Gandhi as himself an innovative technician of mass publicity. I begin with an analysis of the scandal that erupted in early 2002 when one of the Mahatma's descendants appeared to have signed a deal with a U.S. corporation to license Gandhi's name and image for use in consumer goods advertising. I proceed to situate that controversy within the larger field of recent Gandhian reference in India, focusing on the complex connections between his iconization and his demonization. The second half of the essay turns the analysis around to inquire into what I call “Gandhian publicity.” I show that although Gandhi's thinking on communicative efficacy is nowadays often assimilated into a commercial brand logic, Gandhian publicity remains irreducible to such appropriation. Ultimately, I argue that the scandal of “branding Gandhi” has less to do with any violation of his supposed saintly otherwordliness than with the “untimely” provocation posed to consumerist publicity by his understanding of the intimate relationship between the management of corporeal energies and socially transformative mass communication.

Editorial Overview

In "Branding the Mahatma: The Untimely Provocation of Gandhian publicity," William Mazzarella explores the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi's actions and philosophies in our contemporary moment. Mazzarella guides us through varying responses to a recent scandal in which a US-based corporation, CMG Worldwide, sought to license Gandhi's likeness to corporate clients. For some, using Gandhi to promote a variety of commodities and brands was "incongruous, even borderline blasphemous." But as one Indian advertising executive offers, Gandhi could also be considered the world's first "superbrand." Whether valorized, condemned, or portrayed as outdated, the popular image of Gandhi as a non-violent, austere, father of the Indian nation is undeniably ubiquitous. Mazzarella illustrates why this popular image of an otherworldly Gandhi is not impervious to a commodifying, branding logic, showing how these popular notions of Gandhi elide what is at the heart of his politics and public charisma. "Gandhian publicity", which is based on the discipline of bramacharya, serves as the crux of Gandhi's ethical and political praxis and communicative efficacy. As Mazzarella describes"Gandhi intended his bodily practice not as a recipe for solipsistic self-enclosure but rather as a doorway to public communication with a view to social change." Mazzarella's essay is at once about the politics of globalization, consumption, and public culture, as well as the power of corporeal politics and practices. "Branding the Mahatma" brings to light what others have claimed has been an erasure of a critical and an essential aspect of Gandhi's political philosophy and social efficacy.

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published a number of other essays on branding, advertising, and commodification; see in particular "Pesticides in Coca-Cola and Pepsi: Consumerism, Brand Image, and Public Interest in a Globalizing India" by Neeraj Vedwan (2007); "The Work of the New Economy: Consumers, Brands, and Value Creation" by Robert J. Foster (2007); "Fijian Water in Fiji and New York: Local Politics and a Global Commodity" by Martha Kaplan (2007); and "Animated Indians: Critique and Contradiction in Commodified Children's Culture" by Pauline Turner Strong (1996).

"'Ghandi is my Homeboy' T-shirt." February 2010.

About the Author

William Mazzarella is Associate Professor of Anthropology and of Social Sciences at the University of Chicago. He writes and teaches on mass media, globalization, public culture and consumerism, critical theory, commodity aesthetics, and post-coloniality in contemporary India. His book, Shoveling Smoke (Duke, 2003), is an ethnography of the Bombay advertising business and its role in the rise and elaboration of mass consumerism in India in the 1980s and 1990s. The book develops a general theory of how the production and circulation of 'commodity images' mediates the local and the global, affect and discourse, image and text. Mr. Mazzarella is currently working on a book project tentatively titled The Censor's Fist: Affect, Cinema and Mediation in Modern India, which juxtaposes an ethnographic exploration of Indian film censorship debates in the post-liberalization period against a historical reading of the colonial foundations of cinema regulation in the 1910s and 1920s. Mazarella has published previously in Cultural Anthropology: "'Very Bombay': Contending with the Global in an Indian Advertising Agency," which was also awarded the Society for Cultural Anthropology's Cultural Horizons Prize in 2003.

William Mazzarella, "William Mazzarella posing with a wax figure of Gandhi." February 2010.

William Mazzarella, "Gandhi Action Figure." February 2010.


A news report following the controversy of the Gandhi auction:  

Watch some of the ways in which Gandhi has been utilized and portrayed by different brands:

For telecom Italia: 

For Montblanc pens:  

"Montblanc Gandhi Pen." February 2010 via William Mazzarella.

Tushar Gandhi's response and a quick debate about Montblanc's Gandhi pen: 

Apple's "Think Different" Ad campaign:  

For much more detailed information on Gandhi, his life, and his writings and teachings:

Questions for Classroom Discussion

1. Discuss some of the responses to the attempt to use Gandhi's image for branding purposes. In particular discuss the reactions of those who accepted this move and those who did not. What were the reasonings behind these varied responses?

2. What aspects of Gandhi and Gandhi's image were amenable to the logic of branding and commodification? Why? How could Gandhi be interpreted as the world's first "superbrand?"

3. Visit Read about bramacharya. What is it? And How does it work? How is it integral to Gandhi's charisma and mass public appeal, especially during India's independence movement?

4. Discuss, then, the notion of "Gandhian publicity" as it is given by the author, Mazzarella. Upon what is this "publicity" premised?

5. How does neoliberal branding serve to erase "Gandhi's body?" What is lost in "celebrations of Gandhi qua brand?" What is the crucial difference, then, of brand Gandhi and Gandhian publicity?

6. What is a critical body politics? What is Gandhi's critical body politics? How does Gandhi's critical body politics resist appropriation by neoliberal branding and commodifying logics?

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"Handi Gandhi." February 2010 via William Mazzarella.

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