The recent spate of controversies around commercials proves that societies around the world are becoming more inclusive and if brands want their attention, they must also evolve in their messaging
By Reya Mehrotra
The recent Black Lives Matter movement brought back racism into sharp focus around the world, opening up many conversations. One of these was in the ad world, which saw fairness cream brands dropping the word ‘fair’ to be fairer to people of all colours and races. There have been other significant changes too. Women, for instance, have always bled blue in Indian ads. But the recent viral advertisement for Rio Heavy Flow Pads, starring actor Radhika Apte, depicted menstrual blood as real as it can be: red. In the process, it put an end to the long-standing trend in sanitary pad advertisements that have always shown menstrual blood as blue in colour.
But it wasn’t an easy task. The first phase of the launch of the ad campaign in February had to be put on hold after several complaints were filed with the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) about the usage of the colour red. Nobel Hygiene, the parent company, had to submit extensive research documents which comprised all the insights related to periods and the problems women face because of heavy flow. After deliberations with the ASCI and an independent review, the brand was allowed to air the ad with minor modifications in the second phase of the launch. It is now set to launch the commercial on all major and regional television channels. “The entire creative was scripted by a woman… based on real narratives from women, directed and shot by a woman, and is being marketed by women,” says Kartik Johari, vice-president, Nobel Hygiene. Apte who endorses the brand says, “I do not see the issue in showing actual blood. Blood in a fight sequence in a film is fine, but not for periods?”
Apte raises a pertinent query, especially in today’s world, where ads must be in sync with the times for them to click with the audience. The recent spate of controversies around many ads, from Kent to Audi, is ample proof of that. It’s no wonder then that ads are evolving and becoming increasingly inclusive today. “We’ve gotten more sensible and sensitive, but being sensitive in advertising is not a thing to applaud any more.
It is expected,” says Bengaluru-based Rajesh Ramaswamy (better known as Ramsam in the advertising circuit), founder, The Script Room, which has created ads for brands like Netflix, Oyo, Chumbak, etc.
While a number of 21st century ad campaigns have made a mark, there have been several that have stirred up controversies for their sexist, classist and insensitive content. Recently, luxury car brand Audi released an ad that showed a very young girl with a banana standing in front of a car. The ad drew criticism and was labelled ‘provocative and life-threatening’, leading the German car maker to issue an apology. Some even suggested that the ad was sexually suggestive as bananas and sports cars are often attributed to male lust.
Closer home, appliances firm Kent RO Systems came under the scanner when it released an ad on Instagram for its atta-maker device, suggesting that people shouldn’t allow their domestic helps to knead dough since their hands ‘may be infected’. The ad read: “Are you allowing your maid to knead atta dough by hand? Choose KENT Atta & Bread Maker for hands-free kneading of dough. Let automation take care of hygiene this time! Don’t compromise on health and purity.” Labelled discriminatory and classist, the ad was pulled down as the outrage mounted and the company apologised for it.
Talking about how ads are critiqued today more than ever, Ambi Parameswaran, founder, Brand-Building.com, a brand advisory firm, says: “The ASCI has become more proactive now than it was in the earlier days in the monitoring of ads. We have a rapid track system as opposed to earlier when it took up to 14 days to a month to take action against violators. Several companies have also signed the Unstereotype Alliance, an effort to not stereotype men and women, by UN Women. There are also global guidelines for the depiction of children in ads. Today, with the presence of social media, one can point something out within seconds of it being released. Companies even monitor it to check for the same.”
Agrees Delhi-based Karthik Nagarajan, chief content officer, Wavemaker India, a media, content and technology agency. “The kind of blatantly sexist and misogynistic print ads from the 70s and 80s have no place in today’s marketing. If it is regressive, it will show on campaign metrics as well, especially brand safety,” he says.
A fair question
A monumental change that can be felt today in the ad and marketing world is with the usage of the word ‘fair’. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death and the ensuing protests, brands have become decidedly more careful and sensitive. Johnson & Johnson, for one, has withdrawn its complete range of fairness products from India and west Asia, leading other fairness product brands like L’Oréal to do so too. “More than the obsession with fairness, it’s the propagation of the belief that ‘fairer makes better’ which is sinister and wrong. So it’s the misattribution of success/confidence to fairness, whether it’s in career or any other sphere, that needs to go. We need to learn to value and give more credit to the merit and delivery of a person,” says Mumbai-based Abhijit Avasthi, co-founder of Sideways, which has created ads for Disney, Big Bazaar, Borosil, Fevicol, among others.
In July, Hindustan Unilever (HUL), too, formally announced the change in name of its fairness cream brand Fair & Lovely to ‘Glow & Lovely’. The product had, however, already been drawing widespread criticism for endorsing fairness since long. Parameswaran believes that even if the Black Lives Matter movement hadn’t started, change was on the cards. He cites the example of Gillette, a men’s personal care product brand, which in January 2019 changed its decades-old slogan ‘The Best a Man Can Get’ to ‘The Best Men Can Be’. That too, however, drew criticism for generalising men and what it means to be masculine. “However, Gillette still stood by its slogan,” says Parameswaran, who has authored the book Nawabs, Nudes, Noodles: India Through 50 Years of Advertising. “I don’t think ads change social ills. They would need governmental intervention, education and even the involvement of families to shape and change that discourse,” says the brand strategist, whose personal favourite ad campaign is ‘Raymond: The Complete Man’.
Parameswaran is right. In February this year, much before the global outcry against racial discrimination began, the ministry of health and family welfare had finalised an amendment-in The Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) (Amendment) Bill, 2020-to ban advertisements promoting fairness creams, health drinks claiming improvement in the height of children, and products promoting anti-ageing remedies, with potential jail time for offenders. The amendment proposed to increase the penalty for the first conviction, with imprisonment of up to two years and fine up to Rs 10 lakh, and for subsequent conviction, the imprisonment was proposed to be extended to five years with a fine of up to Rs 50 lakh.
Ad gurus believe this is just one small step towards big change. “These norms weren’t built with one action nor are they going to get over with any one single act. Every single act will add to the momentum,” says Ashish Khazanchi, managing partner, Enormous Brands, a Mumbai-based advertising agency.
In the recent past, there have been many ads that have stood out for their unusual content. Take, for instance, the 2015 Rin ad campaign, which moved away from the usual portrayal of women washing clothes. The ad showed a girl, wearing a bright white shirt, on her first day of work going to office in an auto. When asked by her boss why she chose to travel in an auto, she replies with confidence that the autorickshaw driver is her father. The 2017 Vicks ad campaign, too, won a lot of hearts with its portrayal of a transgender raising a child. A year later, an ad for Myntra’s ethnic wear brand Anouk showed two lesbians confessing their love for each other to their parents.
Another popular ad campaign was that of financial products platform PaisaBazaar in 2019, which depicted a person with speech impairment as a hero. The same year, an ad for video streaming platform Hotstar featured a polio-stricken boy talking about his dream of playing cricket despite his disability. “Advertising is a part of popular culture and a creator of dominant social themes,” says Khazanchi, whose agency Enormous Brands created both the ads.
Agrees Ramaswamy: “The audience is not there to sit down and watch your ad, rather they have stumbled upon it. It has to be put across to them in an interesting manner. I am not a fan of things being done to break a stereotype. You know when a brand really means it,” he says, adding, “Showing women doing vessels and chores is not a problem… showing only them doing that or them doing only that is regressive. Ariel’s ‘Share the Load’ campaign was a great initiative and an eye-opener. Now, post the pandemic, one can really see everyone in every household actually sharing the load.”