Medium and message: A conflict of decoding - Part II

By , agencyfaqs! | In | May 28, 2002
One big question in the entire debate is whether misplaced decoding is a case of missing the woods for the trees? After all, it's the bigger message that counts

(Continued from yesterday.)

Yesterday, we had analyzed how viewers/consumers, at times, decode a piece of communication very differently from the way the advertiser or the agency intended it to be decoded. We had also looked at how agencies and advertisers are responsible for - unwittingly - contributing to this misinterpretation.

But one big question in the entire debate is whether misplaced decoding is a case of missing the woods for the trees? After all, it's the bigger message that counts, doesn't it? Mohammed Khan, chairman & managing director, Enterprise Nexus, tends to agree. "You're right, sometimes it is missing the woods… The Bajaj Sunny ad ('tribals') was outstanding, yet it had to be taken off air because it was felt to be 'racist'. It was such a harmless commercial."

"In this country, we take potshots too seriously," admits Anand Halve of chlorophyll. "We must learn to take a lot of this stuff with a pinch of salt. After all, how could the Bajaj Sunny ad ('tribals') be termed 'racist and demeaning of tribals'?"

"Some of the concerns voiced are true, but some are purely imagined," feels Adrian Mendonza, vice-president and executive creative director, Rediffusion-DY&R. "The BPL Mobile ad, for instance, can be construed as dangerous because it's a medically proven fact that cellphones emit radiation. I'm sure the agency did it inadvertently. But the Boxer ad was brilliant. The shoeshine boys were just props. Tomorrow we have an ad that shows a stray dog and it'll be ripped because strays are not 'allowed'." I think each ad has to be assessed individually and in the proper context."

"Sensitivity is one thing, but people here don't have a great sense of humour either," Umesh Shrikhande, director, Euro RSCG, adds. "How can the Boxer ad be promoting child labour? The boys were not even an integral part of the ad. The boys unwittingly came into the ad because they are so prevalent in our environment - and that is a bigger cause of concern." As is the grotesque depiction of tribal folk (or kabeele) in mainstream Hindi movies. Interestingly, Halve thinks the Boxer ad is relatively sensitive. "Child labour is a problem. There are certain images that are relatively negative, so why propagate them?"

Imagined or not, decoding - positive or negative - happens. And willy-nilly, the consumer's opinion matters. "To start with, consumers have to like your advertising," Khan is matter-of-fact. This is the first step in building a relationship between the brand and the consumer. And if this criterion is not met, everything goes out of the window. To quote Sir Frank Lowe from a proprietary Lowe study titled Ad Avoiders, 'All the research we have done recently tells us that the most important consumer measure on effectiveness is likeability.'"

So what's the solution… pre-testing ads?


The answer is emphatic. Because there is no saying if pre-testing can effectively eliminate such issues. And even if one were to pre-test, the question is what to pre-test for? "Pre-testing will never give you the answer," Mendonza explains. "Research will ask 'What negatives do you see in the ad?' And the respondent will start looking for negatives and start pointing out those that he might have ignored or overlooked. Worse, he will point out imagined negatives, either because he thinks he is expected to point them out, or because he doesn't want to look the guy with no answers. Imagine Cadbury's 'cricket' ad being pre-tested and being rejected because some guy said this is 'pitch invasion', which is wrong?"

Khan too isn't in favour of pre-testing. "There is no foolproof way of pre-testing and research is not infallible," he says. And, of course, pre-testing can get us umpteen 'safe' ads, but effectively blot out those killer ideas that define advertising.

With research ruled out, what next? Nothing. "You must trust your moral judgement," says Mendonza. "It's not always in your control, but you must not deliberately mislead. The responsibility lies with the agency and the advertiser" Halve doesn't think there are any ironclad solutions either. "We must just remember that what is acceptable to us need not be acceptable to our audience. We have to be aware of the sensitivities of the society we live in."

"It's all about perceptions, so no amount of research or debate can prevent decoding. Decoding will happen. We just have to be responsible in not consciously rubbing consumers the wrong way," concludes Khan. © 2002 agencyfaqs!