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Liberals decrying the regulation of condom ads on TV have little credibility

The types of commercials that are advised against are not health-related spots aimed at increasing awareness of safe sexual practices. Commercials which are advised against are those which carry no public health benefit but are intended to titillate

analysis Updated: Dec 23, 2017 16:17 IST
Rupa Subramanya
Rupa Subramanya
Information and broadcasting ministry,Condom advertisements,Television viewers
The condom commercial featuring Sunny Leone was the subject of much controversy.

The recent advisory by the information and broadcasting ministry that cable channels should refrain from broadcasting condom advertisements during prime viewing hours has created much misunderstanding.

In the first instance, the ministry’s note makes clear that this is not an outright ban on condom advertisements which are still allowed to be aired during “watershed” hours of 10 pm to 6 am. Further, the types of commercials that are advised against are not health-related spots aimed at increasing awareness of safe sexual practices. Such public service announcements are still permitted at any time. Commercials which are advised against are those which carry no public health benefit but are intended to titillate an adult audience and get them to choose one condom brand, say one with a particular flavour, over another. Furthermore, the ministry has clarified that its advisory applies only to sexually explicit condom advertisements and no others.

The I & B ministry reasoning is based on existing norms within legislation and rules. In particular, Rules 6 and 7, which form part of programme and advertising codes prescribed under Cable Television Network Rules 1994, offer fairly sweeping guidance on what type of programming should not be aired. These include that which “offends against good tastes or decency” (Rule 6(1)) and that which “projects a derogatory image of women” (Rule 7(2.VI)) .

It was the judgment of the I & B ministry that sexually suggestive condom advertisements which serve no educational purpose did not fit these and other provisions of existing advertising codes but, for the benefit of adult viewers, they’re not altogether proscribed, but are permitted during watershed hours.

Also, this new advisory did not originate on a whim of the I & B ministry but was responding to inputs from the industry itself. Indeed, the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) , which is a self-regulating industry association, welcomed the ministry’s advisory and noted that their members had received numerous complaints about condom commercials aired during family viewing hours.

Criticism of the advisory by self-appointed liberals decrying the government interfering with the public’s viewing choices have little or no credibility when many of those same voices correctly decry the objectification and denigration of women in popular culture or elsewhere. No less than the widely praised Justice Verma Committee report which followed the brutal gang rape of a young woman in Delhi in 2012 decries the “objectification of women”. It would be hard for any objective viewer to deny that at least some condom advertisements airing on Indian cable TV do exactly that. There is a huge cognitive dissonance decrying such objectification of women in one set of circumstances but finding it acceptable in another.

Another myth is that the ministry is illegitimately interfering in the choices of private broadcasters. This is wrong for two basic reasons. First, as noted, the advisory originated in a request from ASCI, which is a private association representing the industry and not a government body. Indeed self-regulation of this sort is the norm in many countries including the United States where content deemed inappropriate can’t be aired on broadcast TV channels during prime viewing hours. Indeed, ironically, ads as racy as many condom advertisements currently viewable on Indian TV would not be aired on prime time broadcast TV in the US.

The second and even more basic reason is that in India as in other countries the airwaves are considered public property and by definition are subject to government regulation. Without such regulation, there would be a proliferation of private broadcasters, different broadcasters using the same broadcast bands, and a complete breakdown of the broadcasting sector. Therefore, whether we like it or not, governments everywhere are involved with regulating who gets what portion of the airwaves and what may be broadcast on those airwaves.

For the record, I personally have no objection to condom advertisements on TV any time of the day or night. However, I’m not necessarily the typical viewer and public policy can’t be decided based on the preferences of a small number of adult liberal viewers like myself. The ministry’s advisory does a credible job of balancing the public’s right to view what it wants against the exigencies of public morality. Most importantly, public service announcements promoting safe sex are unaffected.

Rupa Subramanya is an economist and author based in Mumbai.

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Dec 23, 2017 16:17 IST