The ad you won't be seeing has led to outrage, the sacking of senior advertising executives and an apology by a Ford Motor Company executive. Created by the Indian unit of JWT, it features a caricature of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi flashing a victory sign from the driver's seat with three barely-dressed, bound and gagged women stuffed into the car's boot. The tagline:
'Leave your worries behind with Figo's extra-large boot.'
Clearly someone thought they were funny - nearly naked girls, oh ha-ha; gagged and bound, hilarious.
The ads were never published. In ad-speak these are 'scam' ads, intended to win praise and awards from peers. According to The Economic Times, they were uploaded on an advertising website independently by team members and then went viral when international media pointed them out.
The sackings were inevitable, and welcome. I'm not interested in the advertising whinging - are 'scam' ads ethical, should the client have stood up for the firm, blah blah. The ads are indicative of a mind out of sync with social realities in India where the number of women and girls being raped in moving cars has reached epidemic proportion and where enough women and men are saying no to a culture that promotes sexual violence.
So far, so good. But the next obvious question: Is Ford alone in its sexism? From jewellery (buy gold for your daughter's marriage in easy instalments) to cooking oil (solicitous wives switch to this brand for your husband's well-being), ads reinforce gender stereotypes. So, Ford has plenty of company, not in the form of 'scam' ads but, worse, as the real thing; the stuff that is drilled into our heads on primetime television every night.
When complaints are filed, many relate not so much to perpetuating gender stereotypes but to that old chestnut: Obscenity. Back in the day, models Madhu Sapre and Milind Soman were arrested for appearing nude with nothing but a python between them and a pair of sneakers on their feet. Cases were filed against them by both the social services branch of the Mumbai police and animal lovers who alleged cruelty to the said python.
It took 14 years for the courts to rule 'not guilty'. In the meanwhile, times changed and sex today sells everything from chocolate to mango juice. And while nobody is applauding the commodification of women, I certainly am as offended by detergent ads and their endless saga of the white-shirt-seeking wife as by ditzy women turned on by the spritz of a deodorant. Don't like it? You can complain. Or switch channels. Or start a campaign to boycott the brand.
In the aftermath of the December gang-rape, the government is looking seriously at the portrayal of women in mass media. The ministry of information and broadcasting is consulting with media stakeholders on how to properly depict women. According to news reports, the censor board has decided to slap an 'A' certificate on any film that features an item song. The board later clarified that it would examine each song on a 'case by case' basis. And so far, there is no clarity.
The muddle over item songs makes one thing clear: Less, not more, government would help in the how-we-portray-women debate. There is indeed a need to change the way we see women, and to be fair to the advertising industry, we are starting to see that change, for instance, in more ads that show fathers buying insurance for their daughters' education or social initiatives such as the recent 'I am Laadli' campaign by Leo Burnett.
These are small beginnings. But the furore over Ford Figo tells us one thing. If we are to change the way the industry sees women and if we are to send a message of zero tolerance, then that change comes from the effectiveness of the industry to regulate itself. What we need are more instances of slap-downs to silly men and their idea of 'creative licence'. These must come from within the industry not government-imposed bans and diktats.
The views expressed by the author are personal