Are automobiles giving advertising a bad name?

By , agencyfaqs!, New Delhi | In Advertising | March 18, 2008
Is the ASCI being too old-fashioned in its regulations or is the auto industry actually being irresponsible in the ads it chooses to air?

The new Bajaj Pulsar TVC, created

by O&M, seems to be a visual symphony. The TV commercial shows a group of bikers driving into an empty road and performing all kind of synchronised stunts. The background score harmonises freely with the visuals. Apart from the creativity, the advertiser was also responsible. The TVC begins with a disclaimer: "Dramatised stunts performed by experts. Please do not imitate these stunts or actions". This runs later as a scroll also.

Ads in the category have not always been so responsible. In 2007, the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) sat down to decide on complaints about "objectionable" television commercials. It upheld 52 complaints.

The list included ads from categories such as beverages, FMCGs and consumer durables. Of this, there were 16 automobile (both two- and four-wheeler) ads, 14 of which were upheld by the ASCI.

The complaints ranged from the ad being "dangerous" to "irresponsible" to in "bad taste". While seven TVCs were modified by the agency/marketer, five were withdrawn and the ASCI is awaiting compliance on the other two. Is there a message in this? Are automobile ads giving advertising a bad name? Or is it just plain old-fashioned ideals that drove the ASCI's decisions?

Last week, The Brand Reporter tried to find out from agencies, car manufacturers and other interested parties about what is wrong with Indian auto advertising. While some carmakers refused to respond, some others hadn't replied till the time this story was submitted last week.

Imagination vs reality
Not many creative people are happy with the complaints or the ASCI verdicts.

The ASCI rules on auto advertising state: "Advertisers are encouraged to depict advertisements in a manner which promotes safe practices, e.g., wearing of helmets and fixing of seatbelts, not using mobiles/cell phones when driving, etc." Other than that, auto ads should not portray violation of traffic rules, show speed manoeuvrability in a manner which encourages unsafe or reckless driving, which could harm the driver, passengers and/or the general public and show stunts or actions which require professional driving skills, in normal traffic conditions; which in any case should carry a readable cautionary message drawing the viewer's attention to the depiction of stunts.

Is anyone listening?

KV Sridhar, national creative director, Leo Burnett, says, "How else would you show the performance of a vehicle? Most auto ads (cars or bikes) across the world involve a lot of stunt driving. So most of the auto guys actually dramatise the performance, whether it is the horse power of the motorbike or the grip and control - it is a simple product demonstration. The argument that people imitate advertisements when they drive is quite ridiculous."

Point taken. While on the one hand, advertising sells a real product, it also exaggerates. But the farther removed from reality the actions in the ad are, the less likelihood of their being imitated. Even so, advertisers and agencies should be careful about glorifying bad driving on streets.

Take the example of the Ford Fiesta commercial. A boy weaves the car through traffic rashly, seems to lose control and stops just before a flowing river. Another by Suzuki (Zeus Motorcycle) portrays the biker zooming between two trucks, pulling a flower off a moving vehicle for his girlfriend, changing lanes and zipping past. Interestingly, while the complaint against the Suzuki Zeus Bike was upheld, the commercial for Ford Fiesta was found not guilty.

The verdict for Ford says: "Actions shown in the TVC were not likely to induce rash driving under normal circumstances."

So, the question is how far is too much? What should and should not be portrayed in a commercial to not promote irresponsibility? Finally, it is the consumer who has to be responsible for his actions on the street.

In the case of Hero Honda CBZ X-treme, the biker performs stunts on the edge of a cliff on one wheel. The complaint was upheld by the ASCI and the TVC modified. The question is: Would anyone actually emulate this act in real life?

Abhinay Deo of Ramesh Deo Productions argues, "Ads have become a part of entertainment. They are not only about information, unlike 15 years back. There has to be a standardised law all across. Ads are not documentaries. I can understand if infomercials and documentaries are being looked at from a realistic point of view. However, it is unfair to look at advertisements as very real and that they should not have stunts or embellishments. According to me, since advertisement is a part of entertainment today, it comes out as exaggeration also."

Does that mean films, books or comics, or any other media or art form for that matter, could give dangerous ideas to the public? What this story discusses is "irresponsibility". But while deciding what is irresponsible, has the ASCI gone overboard in its judgements? Equally, why can't marketers show more sense before agreeing with what the agency comes up with?

Drawing the line
Overtaking does not portray irresponsibility, but overtaking at a dangerous speed from the left leaves no room for doubt. Deo's take on this? "ASCI should look at it in this way. Does it happen in real life? Yes or no? If it does happen in real life, then showing it in an advertisement - how wrong is it? You see, I personally think people are responsible." Maybe they are responsible for their actions, but is it right for the marketer - and its agency - to glamorise the issue as it were?

Pushpinder Singh, founder, Saints and Warriors, says, "If there are stunts portrayed, where the person is doing something with the bike (or car) which he normally wouldn't, advertising is tapping into some aspiration. No one becomes a stud because he can ride a bike with 15 females hanging around his neck - that is the sub-conscious level of aspiration. Why single out ads - all popular culture is tapping into sub-conscious aspirations."

KV Sridhar

Abhinay Deo

Pushpinder Singh
It is far too simplistic to assume that if someone in an ad drives a vehicle in a certain reckless way, the people who will drive it will also follow suit. "That's a huge insult to the consumer," feels Singh. It is not as if the creators of the advertisement have full freedom to show what they want. There are checks and points that they have to watch out for.

Leo Burnett, for instance, handles both Bajaj and General Motors (GM). According to Sridhar, there are many restrictions when the agency sits down to write out the script. "Animals, locations and permissions - everything seems to be a problem. You cannot show speed or dramatisation of a particular feature in a car or a bike. A product has the right to dramatise its features or to explain and to impress people about its performance."

Pradeep Saxena, senior vice-president, TNS Automotive, points to a study, Auto Need Segmentation and Brand Health, carried out by the organisation in 2007. "The challenge that marketers face in positioning their brand to appeal across a country as vast and diverse as India is highlighted by clear regional differences."

According to the study, customers in the North want to express their overt masculinity, power and ruggedness through the vehicle they buy, whereas customers in the South are keener on pleasing their family and fitting in with their society. A desire to demonstrate practicality and efficiency in brand choice is prevalent among customers from the East. Customers in the West seek to express their authority, status and accomplishment through the cars that they buy. But ad agencies and marketers opt for speed and daredevilry as the main planks of their communication.

To be continued

© 2008 agencyfaqs!