The recent TV commercial for toothpaste brand Close-up is perhaps one of the more creative pieces of communication to have emerged from Hindustan Lever (HLL) lately. Yet, the Information and Broadcasting (I&B) ministry believes that the ad is in bad taste. The result is that the "offensive" ad has been yanked off both DD and other C&S channels with immediate effect.
The commercial in question shows a prisoner who is about to be executed asking his lady jailor for a kiss… as his 'last wish'. The honour-bound lady agrees, paving the way for a hearty smooch session. The obvious takeout for the consumer is the prisoner's Close-up-brushed breath - which makes him confident enough to ask for a kiss. And get a rousing one, at that.
Of course, this takeout seems to have been totally lost on the I&B ministry, with minister Sushma Swaraj terming the ad "quite vulgar". Ms Swaraj's objection appears to stem from the fact that a uniformed officer is kissing a prisoner. Gosh! One look at the ad and you know it's not an Indian officer in the first place. In fact, the entire film is very un-Indian, very spaghetti Western. And what about all those Bollywood movie songs where uniformed army officers cavort with wet saris in the rain?
Expectedly, in advertising circles, the ban has been greeted with much indignation. "The government can't be dictatorial when it comes to advertising and democratic when it comes to the demolition of the Babri Mosque," says Kaushik Roy, who is slated to join Mudra Communications as executive director. "The Close-up ad is not at all offensive, at least compared to what we see in some South Indian channels late nights. I think the I&B guys should see what's really happening on TV. They're either blind or biased or both."
Swapan Seth, deputy CEO, Equus Advertising, agrees wholeheartedly. "I think these 'Singaporean' Big Brother vibes aren't doing any of us any good. First we go and do a carte blanche ban on tobacco. If it's legal to sell, it must be legal to advertise. I also think the government needs to be a tad adult about bans. In any case, I think the kiss in the ad was executed with great taste and dignity, and was merely exaggerating a consumer benefit." Swapan certainly doesn't find the ad offensive. "Far from it. I think it was a pleasant surprise and a change in a category that has just shown dazzling teeth through special effects. Hats off to the client and the agency."
Sabyasachi 'Zap' Sengupta, executive director, McCann-Erickson, echoes similar thoughts when he says, "There is nothing disgusting about the ad. In fact, here there is a real need for kissing to communicate product benefit, unlike Hindi movies where gyrations and smooches are unnecessary and repulsive." Zap feels that some form of regulation can happen, but should be in the hands of professional experts who understand the communication business, not "bureaucratic nerds who exercise authority because they wield it".
"As a policy, I am against censorship of ads," Zap insists. "Let the ad run. If the consumer thinks it is bad he will reject it and the advertiser will automatically mend ways. Let the market decide." Zap also points out that the way ads are judged by government bodies is unprofessional. "When DD rejects a storyboard, there are 99 per cent chances that it is doing so as it is scared of the political thugs who supposedly champion the cause of Indian culture."
In this context, Swapan makes another interesting comment. "I think we also need to get our TVC approvals correct. Someone has passed the storyboard. That person should be held accountable. Not advertisers and agencies who have spent money creating the ad post-approval."
Of course, not everyone is as vocal in criticizing the government. "The cultural invasion is happening and that cannot be helped. But in the absence of any other authority, the government has the responsibility to be the moral cop," says Atulit Saxena, vice-president, Bates India. "In urban India, kids have been exposed to much more - some at the behest of parents - and so, they have the maturity to take such influences in their stride. But in rural India, the maturity level is sub-zero. Six-year-old kids are asking awkward questions. The entire value system is going through a churning." So is censorship an answer? Atulit doesn't think so. "I think it's a question of self-discipline," he says. "The advertising industry should have a regulatory body."
For its part, HLL refused to comment on the ban. "We have absolutely no comments on the minister's decision," says the HLL spokesperson. "And anyway, the commercial, which was released on January 12, 2001, has run its course." Incidentally, this is the second time in three years that HLL has been rapped by the government. Last time round, it was the Feast consumer promotion - with the suggestive line 'What's on your stick?' - that raised hackles.
When contacted, Irfan Khan, who is an ex-HLL corporate communications executive with more than 40 years of work ex under his belt said, "I think it was a damn good ad. And one should accept what appeals to the youth. Yes, the youth should be told to respect the older generation and our culture, but what's the point in censorship? And you can't say sensuality isn't part of our culture. Everyone knows about our temple architecture."
Interestingly, Khan was with HLL when the Feast issue broke out. "Even at that point, the ad had run its course," he says. One wonders whether someone at HLL had called Khan and asked for some advice.
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