The concern for ads promoting reckless behaviour is not a concern in India only. In February 2007, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention wanted General Motors to remove its ad featuring an assembly line robot that jumps off a bridge.
The organisation sent a letter to GM telling the automaker to pull the ad off the air and off the company's website, as well as issue an apology. The group said that the commercial made fun of mental illness and depression and that people might see the ad and think suicide is an option when they're faced with problems. The company did not remove the spot and aired it during an Academy Awards telecast on ABC.
What it broadly means is the consumer is not a fool. It is almost like a group of people wanting a film banned because it hurts their sentiments. Going back to the GM case, the company did not pay heed to the group which complained against the ad - it did not even modify the ad.
A browse through the website of the UK's Advertising Standards Authority, on whose regulations the ASCI codes are based, shows that eight television ads in the auto sector raised objections from the public in 2007. All these complaints were made against car ads - none against two-wheelers. Most of the complaints from among those eight ads reveal that the protest was against either environmental issues or misleading engineering of the product. None of the complaints was upheld.
In the Indian context, it is motorbikes that take pride of place in the rogues' gallery. Of the 16 complaints mentioned earlier, 63 per cent are aimed at bikes.
This could be because of the shift in consumer preferences from 100cc bikes to the more powerful 125cc and above machines. This category now accounts for 26 per cent (2007 figures, according to the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers) of the motorcycle market, compared to 20 per cent in 2006. To show off the 'power' of these bikes, marketers and advertisers resort to ads that border on the dangerous.
Where will the inspiration come from?
In all this noise being made about bad advertising, is a regulator like the ASCI then throttling the creativity of the advertising agency? Does this mean the ASCI's role has to change?
Deo is vociferous. "I don't know how ASCI can step into this and say you cannot do this. Recently, there was a washing machine commercial - a traffic attendant trying to take a bribe and later picked up by people and put into a washing machine. Metaphorically, it meant the product cleans up everything. It was banned because the ASCI said people would try and stuff people in a washing machine. But can I actually do that? It is a practical improbability," he says.
There's no arguing the fact that the ASCI has come down heavily, and rightly so, on irresponsible advertising. But there are cases where the regulatory body could have let a complaint pass. The Tavera ad, where cricketers play a game using the car in a field, is a good example. This also begs the question: Is Indian creativity so limited that the creators depend only on speed thrills? Could they have done more?
Singh of Saints and Warriors feels that intangibles should be created for auto ads which are beyond the mechanical component. "I daresay that car and bike advertising is in the middle of some really sluggish, lazy thinking. People don't buy a bike because it has 10cc more of power, or a car with 15 per cent more efficient shock absorbers. People buy them because of the mystique that they hold. A Harley Davidson, for example, has never advertised a new piston or a new shock absorber. It has always created a mystique around the bike itself," he says. Maybe, but creating a mystique about a 100cc or 125cc bike is a bit tough, considering their mushrooming numbers.
Abroad, the issues are different. In October 2007, the European Parliament proposed that all car advertisements should carry a warning of the environmental impact. Under the plan, 20 per cent of the space or time of any auto ad would have to be set aside for information on a car's fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions, cited as a contributor to global climate change. The rationale is to try to get car makers to compete on environmental information about their cars, rather than purely on power, speed and appearance.
Even though the verdict is not yet out on the proposal, marketers and their agencies are taking the matter with utmost seriousness, fearing that like cigarettes and junk food, car ads might also face restrictions.
Worries about automobile advertising are not new to India alone. Big markets like the US, Europe, Japan and Australia too have agonised over their adverts. While Europe has the Advertisement Standards Authority (ASA), the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is the body in the US that regulates unfair or deceptive advertising. What is striking is that among the 'objectionable' ads we went through, not a single one had traffic violations or any element of irresponsible driving. The complaints as well as the handling were far more evolved than has been seen so far in India.
Consider this striking example. A TV ad for a Peugeot 207 showed a man driving in a city, the voice from his satellite navigation system giving him directions that are contrary to the signs on the road. The directions take him into the countryside and the navigation system says, "Now enjoy."
Viewers complained that the ad encouraged fast and irresponsible driving in the countryside. Peugeot argued that on the country road, the driver had a totally clear view for roughly two miles ahead and there were no obstructions, vegetation, housing, oncoming traffic, wildlife, crossings, people or uneven surfaces. It added that the sun was behind him, the weather was perfect and the driver had 100 per cent visibility and there was no need for him to modify his speed to below the speed limit on that road. They said the car was travelling below the speed limit for the kind of road depicted and was shown flat to the road with no sign of the stress to the suspension or handling that would occur if the car was driven at speed. They also pointed out that there was no excessive engine noise that would indicate speed or any visible or audible indication of speed. The ASA did not uphold the complaint.
Indian advertising for automobiles is yet to reach a level where the concern will be about environment or more social causes. No auto ad (except Honda's), for example, depicts environment concerns in any manner. The Indian ad agencies are still struggling to find newer ways of portraying auto ads. This is also probably because advertising in India is where the US was in the 1950s and 1970s - excitement, power, status, speed, sex, style, bravery, toughness, romance and adventure dominate. Responsible advertising be damned.
What automakers need to do is take a firm line when agencies come up with irresponsible ideas to promote their brands.
On the other hand, a regulatory body like ASCI too needs to make absolutely sure that what it is frowning upon is really irresponsible. An unreasonable ban won't help Indian advertising in the long run.
Part 1 of this story was carried on March 18.