The Layer’r Shot perfume brand’s two advertisements have provoked outrage among a huge segment of social media users and the advertising industry over its offensive content. It is alleged that the ads sought to promote sexual violence against women. Following the suspension of commercials by the ministry of information and broadcasting and the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), the brand took to social media to post a statement of clarification that also contained an apology for hurting people’s sentiments.
Both the ads were aired on Sony Liv during England versus New Zealand Test match. One of the advertisements depicts a young couple in a bedroom where four men, who appear to be friends of the man enter without knocking and randomly ask about “getting a shot”. The men then proceed towards the couple, only to take the ‘Shot’ perfume bottle kept on the table. In the other ad, the same four men are seen in a convenience store. “There are four of us, and one of us will get a shot,” the men remark as they stand behind a woman who is shopping at the store. While the woman appears visibly taken aback by their statements, one of the four men reaches out to grab the bottle of ‘Shot’ on the rack in front.
In a letter to YouTube and Twitter, the I&B ministry said the advertisement was “detrimental to the portrayal of women in the interest of decency and morality” and in violation of Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code).
After the ad broke and raked up a storm, the Advertising Standards Council of India or ASCI invoked a special process called “Suspended Pending Investigation” (SPI). In most cases, it provides an opportunity for the advertiser to put forth their arguments before a recommendation is provided on the ad. However, in exceptional circumstances, when it appears prima facie that an advertisement is in serious breach of the ASCI Code, it directs the advertiser / the advertising agency / the media buying agency and the media concerned to suspend the advertisement.
Manisha Kapoor, CEO and secretary-general, ASCI, suggests brands discontinue showing women in regressive roles. “Brands and advertisers need to avoid stereotyping women or showing them in harmful, discriminatory roles. Gender roles have evolved and brands and advertisers will be in a better shape if they make a note of these changes and work them in, into their creative process when they make the ad,” she adds.
However, the body does not have the mandate to take legal action against offenders; things can only be escalated up to the government to take strong action. So what prompted Layer’r to make the gambit? Layr’r Shot body sprays are marketed by the Gujarat-based Adjavis Venture. Analysts have pegged the brand’s market share to be less than 5% of the `4,000-crore deodorants and spray market. A relatively recent entrant in the Indian market, it was introduced in transparent packaging in an attempt to differentiate the brand from its competitors. Despite that, as Samit Sinha, managing partner, Alchemist Brand Consulting, points out, the brand hasn’t managed to disrupt the market nor has it clocked significant growth since launch. But its new campaign has certainly created quite a stir and made the brand the talk of the town. The bigger question is: Is controversy a good thing for brands? What are the pitfalls of going overboard with a bad joke? And where does a brand draw the line?
In a world that has woken up to the dangers of gender violence, one wonders how the Layer’r Shot communication got past the filters. Sumanto Chattopadhyay, chairman and chief creative officer, 82.5 Communications, Ogilvy Group, says that one does not need to put on a professional lens to see that this sort of advertising is unacceptable. “Some may try to pass it off as ‘just a joke’ but I would say it’s a violent one — and can have terrible repercussions in the way that it influences young minds. Perhaps the brand could go a step further and think about how it could actually help create a safer world for all genders,” he adds. In the past, Nando’s India has become embroiled in controversy after the global chicken restaurant chain published a sexist advert in the print stating, “We don’t mind if you touch our buns, or breasts or even our thighs. Whatever you’re into, enjoying any Nando’s meal with your hands is always recommended”.
On the other side there are ads that have drawn positive attention to a brand. A case in point is Sebamed’s campaign that took a direct dig at Dove.
Nisha Sampath, managing partner, Bright Angles Consulting, adds that while it’s okay to be aggressive against competition, being insensitive to sensitive issues like gender equality, or religion can only land a brand in trouble. Controversies in general are avoidable, but do bring brand the attention, notes Lloyd Mathias, business strategist and angel investor. Most brands do not cause controversy as a tool of brand building. However, there are brands that have thrived with controversy. (see box on controversies that worked in the favor of the brands). While slip-ups do happen, industry watchers say having a damage control protocol really helps. The first step is for brands to own up, take responsibility, pull out the ad and apologise (which Layer’r Shot has done).
Sampath of Bright Angles Consulting believes that in a country that is the size and scale of India, where thousands of ads are made every year, it is unrealistic to expect ASCI to police the entire industry. Net net, she adds that self-governance is the best strategy and way forward for the advertising industry.