Picture this: A scene bearing a simple, middle class Indian household, complete with lunch dabbas and children riding toy cars, when all of a sudden a saree-clad woman begins to croon, 'I feel like a virgin…' and a salsa number starts to take shape right there. She dances away with her man and this goes on for a while. It is not till the end of the reel that one learns that the film is an ad for the vaginal tightening and rejuvenation gel, 18 Again.
From an execution point of view, at first glance, a couple of things stand out: Firstly, contrary to conventional wisdom and given the nature of the product, there is no skin show. Secondly, the ad is pretty much dripping with 'Indian-ness'. One can be certain that TV viewers will not feel compelled to jump at the remote each time the ad comes on. And interestingly, it's never the product itself that makes people switch the channel; rather, it is the visual elements and picturisation that people find objectionable. We've seen how a benign product like a deodorant can make viewers cringe if the sleaze-quotient is too high.
afaqs! learns from Priti Nair, co-founder, Curry-Nation (the agency that has created this campaign) that both these aspects – the lack of skin show and the Indian feel – were part of a deliberate strategy. "We wanted to bring a certain incongruity to the whole engagement, which is why we've combined the overall Indian setting and clothing with an anglicised song and dance routine. It serves to sharpen engagement levels and up the surprise value," she says.
Sumit Chawla, director, Prolife Product, tells afaqs! that the brief given to the agency was to make the ad in a decent manner and keep vulgarity at bay. Further, his team was also particular about a couple of other points. "We did not want our creative execution to be in the 'before-after' format. Also, we were clear that we wanted the subject to be brought out in the open. We didn't want to make an ad where a woman is talking to her friend or sister in a hushed manner," he informs.
Who really benefits – he or she?
Further, in the ad, focus is on the woman's benefit (she is shown singing about how good she feels after using it), and not on the benefit that the man gets after his woman uses the product. Is this a move to keep believers of gender equality from flaring up?
Nair answers, "The essence of the brand is 'woman empowerment'. It's about the woman making a choice to enhance her sexuality and has nothing to do with pleasing her man. Most products in this category speak about how the woman gets rejected by her man, uses the product and then gets accepted by him. Here it is not about male acceptance. Rather, it is the woman's celebration of what she is feeling."
Nair urges viewers to notice the dance choreography in particular. "It's the woman who takes the lead. The man she dances with is just a prop," she explains.
Anand Halve, brand consultant and founder, Chlorophyll, analyses, "I believe it is not because of any feminist issue that the woman's happiness is portrayed. It is because the marketer needs the woman's buy-in to succeed."
Some argue that the strategy is inside-out. A senior account planner at a leading agency says, "The only one who stands to benefit from a tight vagina is the man in the relationship. And the whole 'Feel like a virgin' bit is incorrect; for a virgin, sex for the first time is painful, not pleasurable."
Whether it is smearing dye on a stubborn grey lock of hair, creaming away a facial wrinkle or applying a gel to tighten the vagina, all can be perceived as instances of human (mostly female) attempts to reverse the natural ageing process. In fact, when the anti-aging blitzkrieg first occurred in the Indian market and age-reversing products were first advertised, people said things like, "Whatever happened to the concept of women aging gracefully?"
Some brand experts view this gel as nothing but an extension of the whole anti-aging circus, because at the end of the day it is a product that attempts to reverse a bodily change that occurs with age. However, Chawla insists that 18 Again is not about beautification and aesthetics; according to him, it is a health product with medical benefits.
The ad, though, makes no mention of these clinical benefits and focuses mainly on the sex-related angle. "That's why we have introduced our website at the end of the ad. We want people to explore the brand online and understand that it is not a 'sex product'. It is a health product," he argues.
Besides TV, the media mix will include print, online, outdoor and on-ground efforts such as activations and interactive sessions (including those with gynaecologists) in malls.
The ad has evoked a bagful of myriad reactions from the ad fraternity.
Some feel that as long as a brand meets a legitimate consumer need, it deserves the advertising it can afford. This school of thought believes it is only natural for an evolving society like ours to have an expanding consideration set when it comes to products and categories.
"Denying these brands access to mainstream media warps a healthy free market construct," opines Swati Bhattacharya, national creative director, JWT India, according to whom the ad manages to be provocative sans the cliché of skin. "Also, it incorporates the messaging through imagery that's not alienating," she says.
Bhattacharya, however, feels that what the ad achieves in strategy, it lacks in creativity. "'Feel like a virgin', though interesting, is a little too 'ground zero' in its creative execution," she says.
"We're talking about it, which is good. But we're doing so in the same tenor we'd discuss a bawdy joke. Making the transition from a consumer's conversation to her life is something the ad does not achieve," Bhattacharya declares.
Some feel that this ad, despite the lack of skin show, may still not make for comfortable family viewing. According to Dheeraj Sinha, author and brand strategist, censorship in India, even at the household level, has never been about the degree of skin show per se. Rather, it is more about the suggestive aspects of a video.
"Though there was a lot of show of skin in Indian cinema through the 1980s and 1990s (for example, by actors such as Zeenat Aman and Kimi Katkar), we never showed kissing on the screen. The taboo in India is the thought of sexuality, which is quite apparent in this ad. I am not sure making the woman wear a saree and showing grandparents will lessen the discomfort in Indian drawing rooms," he elaborates.
Sinha is also a little confounded by the middle class, extended family setting. "Here is a product which is intensely personal in nature and has a benefit that can uplift an intimate relationship. Do you really need to bring it out in a social context, more so when it's not a product that needs social sanction?" he questions.
Moving on the execution, he adds, "The song and dance sequence is engaging and enjoyable. It does make light of what could otherwise become a heavy topic. And it's a smart flip to make the woman the centre of the story, although I am not quite sure if the Indian women of today want to feel like virgins all over again."
And, still others are overtly offended. Chlorophyll's Halve states, "There is a 'lakshman rekha' which I believe should not be crossed. I am surprised and disturbed at this TVC being permitted. Next stop: penis enlargement creams?"
He feels the consumer benefit ought to have been portrayed more sensitively. "This TVC suggests that women with this problem are just waiting to turn into raging sexual tornados!" he exclaims.