In 2010, when the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) celebrated 25 years of self-regulation with a seminar, one of the speakers in a star-line up included, Raghu Menon, then secretary of the ministry of information and broadcasting (I&B), Government of India.
During his address, Menon hinted that if the advertising sector was caught napping, then government would take control of regulation in the advertising business, as it had already done in sectors like the film industry. That caused a mini-uproar in the fraternity. Advertising veterans who were present in the event, were quick to say that such a day would never dawn upon advertising. Their line of defence: the business had a very robust mechanism of self-regulation, one that did not need government intervention.
Yesterday, that line was breached. India's advertising regulators and the I&B ministry caught the attention of the world, when condom advertising was banned from prime time television citing concerns that it was not appropriate to play these ads in front of children. This announcement happened on the back of ASCI reportedly admitting to have appealed to the government to take this call.
Does that signal that a lot has changed in the ASCI, and in Indian advertising, in the seven years after that brave stance during ASCI’s silver jubilee celebrations? Or is this a meek admission that ASCI the regulator is now unable to control its own flock (marketers, agencies), and that it needs to take the help of the government to enforce rules like these?
The ruling itself seems to be riddled with loopholes, possibly because people involved in the decision had a limited understanding of the advertising business.
First, do children get exposed to condom advertising only through television? Remember, one of the Manforce ads that caused outrage in the recent past was not a film, but an outdoor hoarding. During Navratri, Manforce condoms put out an ad featuring Sunny Leone in ethnic wear.
One can well argue that the uproar in social media and elsewhere had nothing to do with the sensuality in the ad, but with the condom brand allegedly equating the festival with making love.
But you cannot escape this second instance. Catch a Mumbai local and there are several instances when condom ads are staring at you inside the compartment. Thousands of school children, often unaccompanied by adults, take the train to school and back every day. Do the advertising regulators plan to put a ‘purdah’ on these ads during the day time?
Or how do you deal with this? Visit any medical store and one of the prominent displays in the front of the store include condom packs. Consumer insight: customers ask for the condoms discreetly by pointing directly at the pack. Does this qualify as in-store advertising? Are children visiting chemists at risk?
These days, most children spend a lot of their free time on mobile phones and not in front of the television. As the regulator ASCI, has told this writer in the past, it has little or no control in ads being displayed on the digital medium, especially if they are hosted abroad.
Finally, if the enemy is explicit scenes of love-making, does sensual advertising happen only in the condom category? I recently recall seeing an ad for Fastrack eyewear that could give any condom ad stiff competition. Ditto for some deodorant ads.
Everyone agrees that India is well on its way to becoming the most populous country in the world, beating China. Can one enforce birth control by advertising control? Let's hope India’s advertising regulators have an answer for that.