The power of communication

Written by Geeta Rao | Updated: Jun 16 2005, 05:30am hrs
The recent ban imposed by the government on smoking in Indian films has aroused a spate of knee-jerk liberal reactions as well as some feeble ones from consumer groups.

What will our movies be without a cigarette screamed some of the features in mainline dailies, having missed the point of the ban. It would seem that cigarettes have been the key players and props in Indian cinema and it would be impossible for an actor to emote pain, angst, villainy and brooding melancholy without the help of a cigarette. Well, maybe they will have to do the old-fashioned thing just act.

On the flip side is the governments rather arbitrary ban is there an element of fascism, a taking away of creative license Yes, there is. The minister for information and broadcasting, Jaipal Reddy, has said that the ban would be difficult, especially with retrospective effect, meaning it would not be possible to erase countless old films or keep a watch on the countless new ones to be released.

The government has this fine-tuned-to-an-art habit of getting its communication wires hopelessly crossed. Each time, when intentions are good, implementation reduces them to mere buffoonery. First, the government must hire effective spokespersons, and then take on the issues. But the government has my sympathies since it is up against the strong and powerful tobacco lobby, which has managed to prevail, time and again, on the elements of communication. Wouldnt it would be far more effective if the government shut down cigarette factories or stopped the tobacco crop from being harvested

Advertising has for a long time suspended even alibi advertising for cigarettes as the whole mass of communication has moved to sponsorships, events and the outdoor spaces-shop signages, hoardings, buntings, etc. Many years ago, the Wills Made for Each Other contest, which featured young married couples, did much to glamourise the smoking lifestyle more than Ajay Devgan or Rajnikanth lighting up on screen.

Sponsorships are far more effective in brand and image-building than sundry heroes smoking in the movies, however glamorous it may be. Our national cricket team was, until 2001, sponsored by Wills and wore the cigarette logo as well as branding. Many protests later, we finally have said no to tobacco sponsorship in cricket. But Formula One internationally is still heavily sponsored by the tobacco lobby. So is golf in many countries.

The Olympics and the Football Mondial have taken a stance against tobacco sponsorship. The danger of tobacco being associated with sport and getting the positive and healthy rub-off is to my mind far more dangerous a communication vehicle than the movies. Sailing has been sponsored by Red and White and, ironically, Red and White sponsors bravery awards somehow making the average consumer believe that smokers of this brand are sort of brave and daring, like the ones who win the awards.

It is here that the government should take a closer look. Cigarettes are not the only culprits. What about gutka, zarda and mawa Many of the paan masalas serve as alibi products for a tobacco-infused version, which may be available off the shelf but is never advertised on television. Manikchand Gutka sponsored the Filmfare awards for years without anyone batting an eyelid. The sponsorship was withdrawn not because of their tobacco association but suspect association that came to light.

Government measures and communication effectiveness can never work in piecemeal, fragmented efforts. There will have to be a strong consumer push as well. Finally, it is up to the individual smoker to make a wise and mature decision, rather than be led kicking and screaming away from the evil weed. In Singapore, Thailand and Europe, cigarette packs now have gruesome images of premature babies (thats what could happen if you or your spouse smoke) open cancerous jaws and blackened lungs. Such powerful in-your-face communication has made no difference to the hardened smokers I know. But greenhorn smokers, college and school kids are likely to be put off at the early trial stage. So why are our packs in India still looking pretty and coolwhy hasnt the government decided to enforce the same horrifying images on here.

Sadly, advertising, which has in the past managed to glamourise cigarette smoking, now seems to have nothing in its arsenal to deglamourise the same. Even the famous smoking kills campaign that won awards at Cannes has not done much to dent the smokers pleasure. Perhaps, the government is on the right track in imposing this ban in the movies creative freedom be damned. Or, someone will have to convince Shah Rukh Khan, Indias hottest youth icon, to stop smoking off-screen as an example to the youth of this country.

The writer is CEO Paradigm Shift, and creative advisor Saatchi & Saatchi Advt