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Out of the closet

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SummaryLast month, the ministry of information and broadcasting stepped in to overturn an earlier Advertising Standards Council of India—a voluntary, self-regulatory organisation of the advertising industry—verdict and demanded withdrawal of two ads.

Last month, the ministry of information and broadcasting (I&B) stepped in to overturn an earlier Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI)—a voluntary, self-regulatory organisation of the advertising industry—verdict and demanded withdrawal of two ads. This was the first time an ASCI verdict has been overturned and the ads in question were for Lux Cozy and Amul Macho underwear, which the ASCI declared were “indecent, vulgar and suggestive”.

What’s the hullabaloo all about? In one sentence, it’s about the potential of the category and the stakes involved.

The men’s innerwear segment has witnessed remarkable growth over the past few years, with more Indian consumers opting for hosiery products against tailor-made woven underwear. The Rs 2,565-crore category recorded 7% growth in volume and 17.5% growth in value in 2006, according to a study carried in Images Yearbook (Volume IV, No 1).

Facing competition from international brands like Triumph, Tommy Hilfiger, Marks & Spencer, Sara Lee’s Hanes and Jockey, home-grown brands like, VIP, Lux and Rupa feel compelled to increase their visibility, extend their offerings in large department stores, even introduce premium offerings to cash in on the growing demand.

The result? The super-premium range in men’s innerwear recorded 40.4% value appreciation with a 22.2% growth in

value, while the premium range recorded 21.9% value appreciation with 10% volume growth, according to the Images study. “When something becomes so mass, the line between whether it can be publicly consumed/viewed becomes even more important,” remarks Joshi.

Coming back to the latest controversy, the Lux Cozy campaign—that has been conceptualised by Ogilvy & Mather and first aired on STAR News on February 2—featured a scantily-clad laundry woman cooing to the man who’s answered the doorbell, “nikaliye na”, while eyeing his lower torso, wrapped in a towel. The bewildered man stammers “what”, to which our woman quips “kapde”.

Many viewers thought the ad was in bad taste. Even the ASCI’s Consumer Complaints Council (CCC), that draws members from a cross-section of the society, upheld a consumer’s complaint and the advertiser assured the industry body that the campaign would be modified. It was promptly taken off air.

But the second ad—for Amul Macho Underwear created by Saints & Warriors—invited different reactions from ASCI and the I&B ministry. The campaign showed a newly-wedded woman washing her husband’s underwear and imagining him in it—or at least that’s what her facial expression and gestures conveyed.

While the CCC did not find this ad objectionable, the I&B ministry deemed otherwise. Hence the ban, that some estimate would cost Rs 11 crore to the broadcast industry.

“The discrepancy in decision,” according to Bharat Patel, member of the CCC, who is also the past chairman of the ASCI Board, “arises from the different interpretation of the word ‘obscene’.”

While Rule 7 (8) of the Advertising Code under the I&B ministry’s Cable TV Act prescribes that anything “indecent, vulgar, suggestive, repulsive or offensive… must be avoided in all advertisements”, ASCI’s more liberal code objects only to ads that have the potential to cause “grave and widespread” offense. The Amul macho ad, the ASCI felt, did not cause this “widespread offense”. But since the I&B ministry thought differently, and since the ministry’s decision is binding on broadcasters, the two ads had to be yanked off air.

When contacted, Pushpinder Singh, foun-der, Saints & Warriors, said, “the campaign has done its job and I have nothing to say against those with a massive feudal ego.” His own interpretation of his work is that it was “naughty” but not “obscene”.

This diversity in perception is natural but when a “product and the target audience is mass, then the sensibility of the ad maker too has to be one that the masses are comfortable with,” remarks Prasoon Joshi, regional creative director of McCann-Erickson for South and South-East Asia, and maker of the “Itchy Label” ad for the Hanes brand of underwear that went on to win several awards.

Joshi contends that underwear ads, like tobacco products, can be done in either overt fashion on the logic that the category calls for it. Or these can be treated in a completely innovative fashion. There are instance of both in the industry.

Sometime back there was a complaint against a campaign for Lux’s GenX Premium Briefs that showed a semi-nude man seemingly being molested by a clothed woman in one ad and another where a dog was trying to yank off the man’s towel. The first was withdrawn on ASCI’s order, while the complaint against the second was not entertained.

“Generally obscenity is used by lazy minds when you can’t think of any other way to grab consumer attention,” remarks SK Swamy, managing director of RK Swamy/BBDO. And of course, it is possible to grab consumer attention without being obscene or even mildly provocative.

Pranesh Misra, president and chief operating officer, Lowe-Lintas, cites the example of VIP’s “Kindly Adjust” campaign, and the previous “Hands-free Comfort” campaign for the same brand that highlighted the discomfort caused by poor quality elastic strap. “I am sure that ad must have persuaded many to buy that brand,” says Swamy, who is also a fan of the VIP ad.

Industry veterans agree that it is ridiculous to assume that obscenity is a necessary condition for innerwear ads. “The category is as sensitive as condoms, feminine hygiene products or anti-itch products,” explains Misra. “Differences of opinion would still prevail, but it does not imply that ASCI is a toothless tiger or that obscenity is a difficult criteria to define,” says Misra.

Interestingly, the I&B Committee on Programme & Advertising Code (still in the draft stage) recommends that the ASCI code must be accepted as the final word for advertising-related products, informs Swamy.

“In a complex society like ours, there would always be challenges and variations in perceptions. Let’s just face them as they come,” signs off Misra.

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