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Against traditions or religion, unpleasant — study finds what makes ads ‘offensive’ for Indians

Advertising Standards Council of India has studied 1,759 complaints against 488 advertisements received by it in past 3 years (2019-2021), to identify what is construed as offensive by Indians.

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New Delhi: What’s common to an angry Rahul Dravid in a Cred advertisement, Alia Bhat sharing an ice cream with a stranger in a Cornetto commercial and Vicky Kaushal flaunting his inner wear in a promotion for Amul Macho? Just that a big section of Indians found them offensive.

Other brands that have offended many consumers with their promotions in recent months include Tanishq, Dabur Fem and Fab India (remember when they withdrew an entire collection following social media backlash?).

At a time when societal censorship has often spelt trouble for creativity and content in Indian advertising, the Advertising Standards Council of India, a self-regulatory body for the advertising industry in the country, has studied the complaints it received from Indian consumers over the past three years (2019-2021), to identify what is construed as offensive by Indian consumers. The ASCI had received 1,759 complaints against 488 ads during this period.

The results of the study, released earlier this week (ThePrint has a copy), identified six broad reasons for an advertisement to be categorised as offensive  — when the ad reinforces socially undesirable depictions for commercial gains (such as glorification of fair skin or objectification of bodies), depiction of children in an undesirable manner, anything that is offensive to Indian traditions, advertisements that make a mockery of men, those that are offensive to religious sentiments, and the depiction of anything unpleasant (like death) in the advertisements.

Defining the ‘offensive’ in advertisements

Giving an example of complaints raised against advertising content, the report observed, one of the advertisements that people found to be ‘offensive’ under the first category was the immensely popular Cred ad featuring Team India coach Rahul Dravid. According to the complainant, the advertisement, which shows the cricketer losing his cool, promotes vandalism. A similar complaint was lodged against a Kia Motors ad, where a girl is shown hitting things while playing with a football. The complainant in this case raised concerns of the girl’s behaviour being emulated in real life.

Another common complaint received by the ASCI revolves around the manner in which children are depicted in ads. For example, the agency received a complaint against a Parle Kismi toffee advertisement, because a parent felt it promoted physical intimacy among pre-teens, claimed the report.

Anything that was perceived to be against Indian traditions also attracted the ire of consumers. The extent of offence is heightened when it is felt that the advertisement sends an incorrect message to the youth. The study report gave the example of a Disney Hotstar promotion that uses the tagline “Bahut hua parivar” (enough of the family), while showing the young protagonist of the ad choosing to watch a cricket match online with his friends, instead of spending time with the family. “Multiple complaints see this as disrespect for Indian family values,” noted the ASCI study.

In some patriarchal pockets, advertisements that seem to “target men” obviously don’t find many takers. “These complainants feel that in some way men are victims of women’s progress and that on behalf of their gender, they need to protect any further erosion of their stature or role in society,” the ASCI study claimed, adding that complainants felt themselves being “victimised” by such advertisement.

Advertisements found to be offensive against the religious sentiments of any community, also formed a big section of complaints received by the ASCI. “These complainants believe that certain advertisements are part of a conspiracy against their religion. They operate like search engines that scan ads to identify elements that are associated with their religion and have the potential to be contentious,” claimed the ASCI report. The backlash faced by the Manyavar advertisement against the practice of “kanyadaan”, a common part of most Hindu marriages (again featuring Alia Bhat), fell in this category.

When it comes to unpleasant, the choice of what is offensive, can become very personal. Some complaints received in this category include the depiction of death in Policy Bazar commercials and menstrual blood in a promotion for Stayfree sanitary napkins.

What advertisers say

While ad-men advocate putting a brand’s image and its needs above the desire to create “bold” commercials, the extent of offence taken come as a surprise to many.

Harsh Maheshwari, Executive Creative Director at Wunderman Thompson said he wasn’t surprised by the categories of “offensive content” recognised by the study, but by the extent to which people get offended.

“I am not really surprised by any particular category per se. It seems fair to take offence by all of the categories if I read just the headers. However, it is surprising what each of the categories can extend to. That’s where it starts to get ridiculous . What’s wrong in a coding company telling you to code and become successful. Or a stylish underwear, that’s made to flaunt, showing people noticing the underwear. Or a health insurance company telling you what will happen if you fall ill. Seems alright to me,” Maheshwari told ThePrint in a  WhatsApp message

On the issue of consumer sensitivity impacting creativity, however, he said, “We’re here to sell. And it feels selfish to push for a brave piece of work that I might personally strongly believe in, but seems offensive to the target audience at the outset. Having said that, it’s important to differentiate between a cultural pushback and a few comments on social media.”

A copywriter at a leading ad agency in Gurugram, who didn’t wish to be named, echoed Maheshwari’s words.

“Since advertising is a service, at the end of the day we have to show the brand in a positive light. That does sometimes mean letting go of ideas that might be ‘too provocative’.”

He added, however, “One other thing we must understand is that brands are no longer just products. They mould behaviour and it is our responsibility to shape behaviour towards a positive, fair, and equal society.”

Giving the example of more mature economies, he said, brands there are indeed standing up for values they believe in, at the risk of offending a huge audience.

“When Nike stood behind Colin Kaepernick when he took the knee against police brutality against African Americans. That’s an example of a brand standing by its values and actually trying to push the world forward, despite the flak it took. Sadly, we can’t say the same about brands here,” the copywriter added.

Also read: What is the new Daisy Dee lingerie ad and why is it a hoorah for Indian TV commercials


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