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How responsible is advertising?

Madhukar Sabnavis | July 04, 2003

In South Africa, a bank ad. says 'Beef up your account with us' and shows a cow. Hindu religious groups claim their sentiments have been hurt and the bank tenders an apology.

Closer home, a father in a fairness ad. says 'Kash mera beta hota' (If only I had a son!). Consumer activist groups allege that this is exploitation of a social evil and so in bad taste. The issue goes up to Parliament and the ad is banned.

Cigarettes are known to be harmful for health. Yet they are readily available and sold. However, their advertising on electronic media is banned. And advertisers and advertising agencies alike wait with bated breath for a total ban on the category's advertising.

When a scantily dressed woman appears in a liquor or perfume ad, women's rights groups complain of disrespect being shown to womanhood. The model is harassed, cases are filed in courts and the ad is forced to be discontinued.

A man does bungee jumping in a cola ad. One boy in a far out town jumps from the fifth floor of a building in imitation and dies. Another man removes a can of soft drink from the mouth of a cheetah.

Again, one boy puts his hand into the mouth of his dog. And this is enough for people to believe that such ads encourage dangerous practices among children and so the ads should be banned.

Is the environment being harsh on advertising?

Is advertising actually a powerful influence or are consumer groups actually exploiting it to gain publicity and noticeability?

Are the messages beamed out by other entertainment (movies, serials) and news media (TV and press) more sensitive to the world outside?

Is advertising being singled out for harsh treatment because it's the easiest to aim at?

There is no doubt that advertising has a strong social responsibility, independent of its known commercial responsibility. In a free economy like India, it must be judged like any other media beamed to the consumer at large. Freedom of expression for commercial purposes must not be viewed differently from freedom of expression.

The environment has changed dramatically in the last decade. The average Indian consumer is today more exposed to the West through travel and the entertainment media. And this means greater exposure to their values, lifestyles and social rituals.

Not surprisingly, this has led to the average consumer becoming more liberal and open- minded. While he may not adopt many of those values and lifestyles, he has become more open to accept differing views.

This is reflected in the mix-n-match culture we see around us -- in food, clothes, language and even marriages where there is a shift from arranged marriage to arranged love marriage. With it has come more advertising -- and the consumer growing more cynical of its claims and stories.

Even in small towns, consumers say this about celebrity advertising -- "He has been paid to say good things about the product" and "The product will cost more as the company has to pay for the advertising!"

Clearly he has become more advertising savvy. In this context, to believe that advertising has an overwhelming power in bringing about social change is to give it greater weight than it deserves.

Advertising is just one of the social influences in a capitalistic economy like India. And no less commercial than the others. Movies, serials, magazines -- play as big or even bigger roles in shaping social behaviour.

Movie stars are bigger than ad models. Not surprisingly, movies are a final destination for all budding models. A recent World Health Organisation survey shows that 80 per cent of Bollywood movies had their heroes smoking -- a very unhealthy but strong glamourisation of the smoking habit -- stronger than any brand advertising. It is subliminal yet more powerful!

The social backdrop of most of the K-serials are of the repression of women. Though the women come out winners in the end. And audiences accept this and they garner high TRPs -- often connecting with the woman protagonist.

Music videos like Kanta Laga and Yeh Vada Raha use women purely like sex objects. And such videos are mushrooming by the day and are beamed by music channels over and over again.

(And in the name of glamour, the average Hindi film heroine is more scantily dressed than the vamps of yesteryears!) Action movies are replete with stunts that are very exciting to the average child and very dangerous too.

These are however the harbingers of change, the barometer of consumer acceptance levels and hence should not be ignored. So the social responsibility of advertising needs to be judged in this context rather than in isolation.

The time has come to let the Indian consumer decide what is good for him. In a democratic set up, where every individual has a right to vote and in a free economy, where he has a right to choose products he wants, there is no reason why he should not be allowed to decide what the stretching limit of the social code is in advertising.

Over the years, the Indian consumer has shown great maturity in accepting and rejecting communication. In the early '90s, M R Coffee advertised 'real pleasure doesn't come in minutes' by showing explicit sex.

The consumer rejected it and the brand sunk. At the same time when Subhash Ghai released Khalnayak, the song, Choli ke peeche kya hai, created a furore among women's groups, but the average viewer accepted it in spirit and both the movie and the song became a runaway hit. Let's respect the intelligence of the consumer and not take on the role of his moral conscience.

This does not mean that there is no need to regulate advertising and its content. In fact, advertising is one fraternity that has its independent self regulation body -- ASCI -- which monitors and guides advertisers to remain socially responsible.

However, environmental pressures can make it difficult for even a body like ASCI to perform independently, open mindedly and fairly. The frame of reference needs to be recognised and accepted.

Advertising must be truthful. Not misleading or ambiguous or make wrong factual claims that can get consumers to buy inferior products thinking these products are delivering more.

Advertising must be sensitive to religious and political sensitivities -- primarily because India is a religious country with a high religious sensitivity. And unnecessarily provoking it is not healthy.

Advertising must not promote undesirable products -- declared illegal by law i.e. drugs. However, in this context banning of advertising of liquor and cigarettes smacks of hypocrisy. Anything that can be sold openly should be allowed to be promoted openly.

If the government does believe in the pursuation power of advertising, it is advised to take out a portion of the funds it annually collects as sales tax and excise duty and invest it in anti-smoking and anti-drinking campaigns!

Advertising must not promote accepted social ills -- Saying that 'dowry is good' or 'it's good to have a male child rather than a female child' or 'it's hep to ride a bike without a helmet' should be avoided as part of the social responsibility of advertising. Bringing an issue upfront as the fairness ad. did is not undesirable in this context.

Finally, regulators and consumer groups must accept that social change is inevitable and much depiction must be seen in the context in which the advertising is beamed.

Winds of change are inevitable and trying to slow them down or stop them is neither advertising's responsibility nor its capability. And in such a situation, the ads supposedly degrading women (liquor, perfume) and promoting bad behaviour among children (soft drinks) aren't doing that. Let them pass.

It may always be useful to remember David Ogilvy's famous adage "The consumer is not a moron, she is your wife". It often appears that advertising agencies respect the consumer more than the average consumer activist.

Something worth thinking about!

(The writer is Country Manager -- Discovery, Ogilvy and Mather India. Opinions expressed are his own and not of the organisation he works for)



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