Quantcast

Why Amazon Keeps Pissing Off Indian People

What do these skateboards, flags and vagina ashtrays have in common?

Ankita Rao

Ankita Rao

Image: Amazon

Here are some of the items sold on Amazon that have pissed off Indians this year: an Indian flag doormat and flip-flops, a skateboard with the Hindu god Ganesh, and an ashtray in which the actual tray juts out of a naked woman like a bowl-shaped vagina.

In most of these cases Amazon, which has gained a strong foothold after investing $5 billion in the Indian market, has pulled the product from its online marketplace, usually after strong statements from Hindu advocacy groups and backlash in the press. The battle got so heated at one point that external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj threatened to revoke the visas of Amazon employees working in India.

But Amazon is a global marketplace that sells all sorts of things, from all sorts of religions and ethnic backgrounds, so why are Indians taking umbrage? Are we just a super sensitive people? The truth lies in context.

Let's start with the Indian flag merch. It's not offensive, obviously, to sell products bearing the tricolor, and it's common to see Indian flag paraphernalia around the country. But there's an Indian belief (similar to some Arab cultures) that putting your feet on something, or toward something, is a sign of disrespect. For example, if I were to sit on the floor in a Hindu temple and stretch my legs out toward the statues and idols of Hindu gods, I could get some dirty looks.

Selling flip-flops and doormats, which people are meant to step on, then, becomes offensive to some people. It's akin to symbolically burning a flag in America.

This is similar to the Ganesh skateboard. Ganesh, a Hindu god depicted with a human body with an elephant head, is meant to remove obstacles and help you achieve your dreams. Putting your feet on a Ganesh skateboard is like putting your butt on a Jesus toilet.

A departure from the 'stepping on culture' motif is the naked woman ashtray. From what I've seen reported in Indian media, the larger issue with this is not obscenity but rather the objectification of women.

Fighting misogyny and violence against women has been a national conversation since a horrifying and publicized gang rape in 2012. Since then, there has been a lot of rage, and some progress. But just this week a woman was gang raped on a public metro—once again highlighting the need for a shift toward gender equality and safety.

There's also legal precedence for removing what Indian law deems overtly sexual products under Section 292 of the penal code. This is the same law that has made it harder for online vendors to sell sex toys. So while this seems like a conservative approach, and fighting over a naked woman ashtray could seem trivial compared to a much larger problem, it might also just be a trigger for other issues the country is navigating.

Amazon has, for the most part, responded by removing these items from the website, and it has plenty of financial incentive for doing so. The company's CEO, Jeff Bezos, credited growth in India for higher than usual quarterly revenue. But the company still has to compete with Flipkart, the Indian online marketplace, that is still the number one destination.

But more importantly, this seems to be a lesson in globalization, and a reminder that going after the bottom line still requires cultural sensitivity and an understanding of your consumers.