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Dabbawala scam: Case of life imitating advertising

May 20, 2013

Dabbawala scam: Case of life imitating advertising


In Mumbai and elsewhere*, a stack of steel or aluminium containers to carry food is referred to as tiffin (Dabba). The organisation of professionals who collect and deliver these lunch packs in Mumbai is famous enough, so much so that even Prince Charles had to meet them when he visited India. Much has been written about this unique Six Sigma network, and dabbawalas, or the carriers themselves. -wala also means ‘of’ or ‘containing’ a thing. So Dabbawala may be translated as 1. The tiffin service guy, and also 2. As referring to Tiffin or dabba, as in -of/ about Dabba.


Scam, in advertising lingo, is a fake advert: meant more for winning awards and for the sake of superficial feel good social service, rather than real circulation. It is an open secret within the advertising community that many ads with strong social messages are not backed by enough client money (often self commissioned by the agencies), not displayed or aired enough, and are mainly good for showing the maker in a better light. So they run for a token 7 or 10 times, or, if in print/ on billboards, are circulated/ displayed just enough to make them appear real. ‘Scamming’ is done also for new and unique concepts: harder to sell to a client, but likely to be valued highly by the creative community. Many have won over Cannes Lions and other high temples. So these scams, or fakes, have a purpose.

Now we come to a scam ad gone beyond its narrow mandate to serve the ad maker/ advertising community: It might, just might, bring about a change in the lives of some hungry children.

Dope on Dabbawala film

Youtube video ‘Share my Dabba’ @ has been popping up on Facebook timelines and warming many a hearts. Shared and re-posted by many, the video has been viewed 306,827 times at the time of my writing this, and folks are raving about and congratulating the Dabbawalas for their kindness. For obvious reasons, described beautifully in the dabbawala scam article, too.

First Post network, where the article calling it a scam ad has appeared, reported the original video saying ‘The Share My Dabba initiative will attempt to bridge a bit of the gap between the haves and the have-nots of Mumbai’ with such tags as: #dabbawallahs #HowThisWorks #India #Malnutrition #Mumbai #Poverty#Share My Dabba #The Dabbawallah Foundation

Share My Dabba: How Mumbai dabbawallahs will help feed street kids

So without having seen the video, I got this impression that the tiffin distribution system, already lauded for being great, is also serving the society by distributing the unused food in dabbas to hungry children, of course with support from another organisation. All because of what is called the red button revolution.

Calling the bluff

Once upon a time, there was a dabbawalla scam by Anant Rangaswamy

The second fp article, because of which I started writing this piece, came out recently, busting the myth. It presents a detailed description of all that happened in the aftermath of the SMD video, and comes to a conclusion that I concur with: I hope it doesn’t win any awards.

I am angry at their presenting the material in tinted light and showing obviously false grounds as real. I also don’t like their piggybacking the social media and possibly selling their dirty success to clients at the expense of my emotions. And, I know that Anant’s fact-finding is going to have limited impact because people are more likely to share the original one and then forget about it all; rare chance they’ll seek out truth. Even those who know they have been cheated are less likely to spread the word about the scam – it’s too much effort… So that’s pretty much the end of it.

However I differ with Anant on one point: I feel that although the makers are guilty of all that is mentioned in the article, the ideas in the ad just might cross their masters’ self serving boundaries and go into the realm of making a real impact. First Post also reports that ‘ever since the video went viral on the internet, several individuals have offered to help’. I know there are a lot of hurdles in the way for an individual who has to use the red button to help. BUT THERE, MY FRIEND. THAT IS YOUR SILVER LINING! People seem to be trying.

Hence I hope. I also wish success to the volunteers and organisations involved in making this happen – they are the ones who are carrying the greatest burden, and sustainability of this effort really depends on them.

Update: My follow-up post about Dabbawala scam and how people are difficult to move with truth in media @

And hey! Some people seem to have shared this link. Thanks all for reading. Even those who were too shy to share credit… it just reinforces my point.  S

Yet another update: I am enlightened and glad to see the Brand Equity (BE) coverage about what happened in the aftermath. Even if ‘the rocket landed in the pond’ in Shephali’s words, McCann still got the Lion. In hindsight, I accept the ad-maker’s explanation that agencies cannot fund social projects, their job is to create ads. But my heart still goes out to those who worked to feed those 25 odd children – I never saw their photos and bios, or any public frenzy around that NGO (The Happy Life Welfare Society) itself. (Life After Lions, Shephali Bhatt; The Economic Times, June 10-16, 2015)

*Disambiguation: the term ‘tiffin’ is also used widely in parts of South India to mean a small snack.

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