Medium and message: A conflict of decoding - Part I

By , agencyfaqs! | In | May 27, 2002
At times, consumers decode communication very differently from the way the advertiser intended, resulting in a distraction from the core of the advertising message

By and large, every advertising professional I have come across thinks highly of the 'shoeshine boys' commercial for the Bajaj Boxer. Yet, the average television viewer will, in all likelihood, not even recall seeing this ad (which is a bit sad). Simply because the ad was on air for a very brief period - before being quietly pulled off.

Why? Apparently, some people took exception to the ad depicting young shoeshine boys. The feeling that the ad was 'promoting child labour' had somehow taken root.

Absurd though it may sound, the fact of the matter is that a set - perhaps just a small set - of television consumers decoded the Boxer commercial in a way that the advertiser and the agency never imagined possible. Here was a commercial telling consumers about a motorcycle that makes riding so comfortable, one just doesn't want to get off it. And the creative device the commercial used was this man who gets his right shoe polished by a shoeshine boy, then rides his bike some distance, turns, and rides back… to get his left shoe polished. All because he can't think of getting off his Boxer. Simple, straightforward idea, but somebody was more concerned with the ad showing shoeshine boys.

This ad is not an isolated case. Let's take a couple of recent instances. First, the 'pregnant woman' ad for BPL Mobile, which has drawn a lot of flak… The idea in the BPL Mobile commercial is clarity of sound (sound so clear, even the noiselessness of a foetus in a woman's womb drowns out all other noises). But that's not what has registered in people's minds. What has, is the image of the woman in the ad pressing a cellphone against her abdomen. And the fact that the woman is exposing her to-be-born to the dangers of radiation.

Then there's the 'doctor' ad for the Ford IKON, the one where the shrink takes his bored/depressed patient for an 'action-packed' drive in the IKON. All that this commercial said was that the IKON is all about excitement. But the ad has managed drawing more attention to the doctor's rash, irresponsible driving, and the emphasis on speed. There is also talk about how consumers protested about the way the youngsters in the Surf Excel commercial ('picnic') were seen washing dirty clothes in a pristine waterfall. Apparently, the ad was modified in a way that one of the youngsters takes out a bucket of water from the waterfall, and washes the dirty shirt in the bucket; not directly in the waterfall.

What emerges is the fact that, at times, the creative idea - or its execution - distracts the viewer's attention from the advertising message in a way that the primary message becomes something of a blind spot.

It's fairly obvious that the viewer/consumer is decoding the communication very differently from the way the advertiser or the agency intended it to be decoded. Naturally, part of the onus rests on the agency. "I think there are two reasons why this happens," says Anand Halve of chlorophyll. "One, because there is this tendency to complicate that stems from a mistrust of simplicity - that you cannot be interesting by being simple. So you create unnecessary diversions that distract from the main message. The other reason is the assumption that you (the agency) and the audience share the same worldview. We must realize that we, as advertising professionals, think quite differently from the common consumer. We do not have enough of a shared opinion, so you may put in things that you think means something, but the consumer interprets it quite differently."

Consumers who 'tune out' the main message might be doing so when the creative device used to deliver the message goes against what is 'acceptable' in their ethos. So, for instance, the sight of a pregnant woman exposing her child to harmful radiation will not be looked upon too kindly. Or, the doctor - someone who has a 'responsible' image in society - who is seen to be encouraging speeding/rash driving. In both cases, the contradiction to real life imagery is glaring. And unpardonable.

According to Umesh Shrikhande, director, Euro RSCG, part of the decoding problem stems from the communication being too open-ended. "Broadly, communication works when you restrict the advertising to the brand's world, or when you create a parallel to the brand's world. However, at times, you dramatize or exaggerate the communication in such a way that it veers away from the consumer's world. But this can happen only if your brand is iconic. Also, if you do choose this route, you have to be conscious of the bridges that will take you there. You have to be sure the consumer gets the message, and that the communication does not create any backlash. And if a consumer can read too much into an ad, perhaps it's loosely made to begin with."

However exaggerated the communication needs to be, there is no shirking social responsibility. "You might want to create great advertising, but you cannot overstep the line of acceptability," says Mohammed Khan, chairman & managing director, Enterprise Nexus. "The lines between acceptable and unacceptable are blurring in advertising… not only in India. Benetton's case has been done to death. My point is, you cannot step on sensitivities just to make a memorable ad."

Consumers may decode communication differently. And advertisers and agencies can, perhaps, be faulted for that. But is some of this decoding 'imagined threats'? And more importantly, is there a means of keeping a check on misinterpreted decoding? Is pre-testing of ads the answer?

(To be concluded tomorrow.) © 2002 agencyfaqs!