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The ad effect

business Updated: May 25, 2008 02:49 IST
Praveen Donthi

Picture this. A young man with a towel wrapped around him answers the doorbell. A girl dressed in a mini skirt and low-cut blouse says she is the dhobi, and suggestively looks ‘down’ at him. Just then, the towel drops; the man is now in his underwear. She says, “Nikaliye na?” He too looks down, and asks: “What?” She replies: “Kapde”.

This underwear ad aired a couple of seasons ago, and ran into trouble, with complaints being filed with the sector’s watchdog, the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI). ASCI agreed it was not palatable, and took it off the air.

Now, here’s what. Of late, ASCI — that receives 120 to 140 complaints annually — is seeing an increase of 10 per cent in the number of complaints, says its secretary general Allan Collaco. With dime a dozen channels vying for our eyeballs, advertisers are trying every trick to worm their way into our heads. An insurance ad currently on air is trying to hard sell the product saying that death (or grave illness) can strike anytime: Museebatein batake nahin aati. Life mein rahiye hamesha tayyar, the tagline says.

But the conservatives are more worried about what ads are doing to youngsters. Brands like Moto Yuva and Virgin Mobile have been poking fun at parents — and telling children irreverence is ‘oh-so-kewl’. The Moto Yuva ad, for instance, shows a teenager shutting out his father’s orders to clean his room. The Virgin Mobile ad shows a girl lying to her parents about her sexual orientation so that she can go to Goa for the weekend with her boyfriend.

“The response to Moto Yuva ad has been terrific,” says Piyush Pandey, the CEO of Ogilvy and Mather, the company that made the ad. But Balwinder Kaur, mother of a 10-year-old has issues: “It tells kids that taking your parents for a ride is okay. Kids are getting mixed signals. That’s definitely not okay in traditional Indian society.” Then again — if you go by the uber popular Smirnoff line — tradition isn’t what it used to be. Explains Pandey, “Today’s child has grown up, and that Moto Yuva ad is a take on parents who treat their 20-year-olds like five-year-olds.” He says, “Fifty years ago even replying to your parents was blasphemous. Today, parents and children discuss and argue everything.”

Maitrayee Chaudhuri, professor of sociology at JNU, agrees that the tension between the traditional and modern has always been around, adding that the amount of money advertising commands (revenues were to the tune of Rs 18,000 crore in 2007) makes it a ‘change agent’.

Most ad filmmakers maintain that they mirror society. “Ads merely select the morals. They can’t create behavioral changes. They merely play upon what you already have,” argues Balki, national creative director, Lowe India. Then why do people get offended? Gullu Sen, vice chairman, Denstu India has an explanation: “We have a very ostrich-like approach. Indians being Indians, we don’t want to look at what’s happening in our society. The Virgin Mobile ad also is a reflection of what the youth actually do.”

If nothing is permanent but change in society, then ads, their makers argue, capture the changes first. They swear by market research. “There is a classic saying,” says Swapan Seth, CEO of Equus Red Cell, “that people use market research like a drunk man uses the lamp post. If it restores faith in certain issues, it also warns us to move away from outdated values.”

The amount of money involved also forces them to be careful. “Most ads are put through pre-tests, concept testing etc, and are also exposed to a small proportion of the intended audience,” explains Amit Agnihotri, CEO, exchange4media.com. “The people who create these ads are mostly from public schools, and have a liberal take on things, so not all of what ad guys take as a given is true or relevant for India as a whole.”

So is advertising jumping the gun when it comes to new age values? Anand Kumar, another sociology professor says, it “breaks conservation and continuity, which is what schools and homes seek to propagate.” So, the Nike ad says ‘just do it’; school education says don’t do it even if you could. But then, as Seth says, “Nine is the new 13 and kids are acutely aware of things. If you give them wings, they will also develop roots.”

(Inputs by Shalini Singh)