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Dark humour: Is the genre welcome in advertising?

By , agencyfaqs! | In | January 06, 2003
ADD Sprint, Asian Paints, M-Seal, Castrol, Roma Euroswitches… Dark humour, as a genre, is on an ascendant in Indian advertising. For good or for bad?


Sample the following observations made by two surfers on agencyfaqs! Second Opinion, vis-à-vis a recent television commercial.

Surfer 1: 'Have we stooped so low that we are playing with people's lives to show product superiority? An ad in most disgusting taste. Have we even taken into account its effect on kids? If the company doesn't have sense to withdraw it, perhaps some authority should ban it. Shocking!'

Surfer 2: 'Hey… Laugh a little! We have to learn not to take ourselves so seriously. I think the ad is great. If it doesn't sell the pen, at least it teaches us to keep a sense of humour.'

For the record, these diametrically opposite opinions were posted in response to the 'cyanide test' commercial for pen brand, ADD Sprint. However, the opinions - or at least the arguments couched therein - could equally apply to the ads for Roma Euroswitches ('man on ventilator') or Asian Paints ("Sunil babu… badhiya hai").

Very quickly, here's how the ADD Sprint, Roma Euroswitches and Asian Paints ads go. ADD Sprint is about these two scientists who are meant to record 'the taste of cyanide' by popping in the pills. Death comes on swift wings, so the scientist with an ordinary pen doesn't write a line. But the one with ADD Sprint manages scrawling a whole paragraph… courtesy the pen that helps 'write really fast'. Roma Euroswitches is about this family visiting an old man in a hospital. An electric switch in the old man's room soon becomes the center of attraction, and everyone keeps switching it on and switching it off - even though the switch is connected to the ventilator the old man is on… And the Asian Paints ad humourously alluded to death while talking about the 'long-lasting nature' of the paint.

While all the three fore-mentioned ads have received a fair share of plaudits and petards in the Second Opinion forum - which is common enough - what is remarkable is the intensity of the opinions. It's the kind of heat generally reserved for Coke and Pepsi advertising. Not just the intensity, it's also the polarization of opinions that is striking. One bunch of surfers believes the humour in these ads is 'just great'. Another takes strong exception, terming it as 'callous' and 'insensitive'. No middle ground.

What these three ads share is a very dark shade of humour. Humour that is either downright funny or downright insulting, depending upon how one chooses to look at it. Of course, the key thing is that this kind of humour usually has to do with (the loss of) human life and dignity. Which is why, even the recent ad for Castrol ('doctor in graveyard') and the 'lunatic' ad for one of those innumerable pen brands have been frowned upon in some quarters (the latter, because it was perceived to be disparaging of mentally challenged people). Even M-Seal ('testament') did come in for stray criticism.

ADD Sprint, Asian Paints, M-Seal, Castrol, Roma Euroswitches… Dark humour, as a genre, is certainly on an ascendant in Indian advertising. For good or for bad, we're still to discover. One thing looks certain - its arrival in advertising is natural. "Today, it is getting harder to break the clutter, so you have to startle the consumer to get her attention," says Rajeev Raja, executive creative director, Bates India. "So the evolution to dark humour is natural." Also, today, humour in advertising is almost a given. Every second ad elicits or tries to elicit a smile, if not a hearty guffaw. Dark humour is, perhaps, an attempt at finding unexplored niches in the broader humour genre. "Indian audiences have not been exposed to too many genres in advertising," says Rensil D'Silva, creative director, Mudra Communications. "It's only over the past five years that we've started appreciating humour as a genre. Dark humour is slowly coming into the open, and it has great scope."

It's coming into the open, yes. But is it a desirable? The overwhelming response is yes. "I think it is good that we're seeing dark humour in advertising," says Josy Paul, chief creative officer & agency head, rmg david. "It's a good thing if you can bring issues such as death into the mainstream. It helps people accept these things better." D'Silva agrees when he says, "People have to be exposed to these things. We in India treat life with great respect in its portrayal, though we may not do the same in reality. Which is absurd." Naturally, the issue is of political correctness and about keeping sensibilities in mind. "Yes, a lot depends on execution. But you will always have a moral watchdog in the community, and censorship will get you an even more regressive audience," D'Silva insists.

But sensitivities cannot be simply wished away. No wonder care and caution is advised. "Dark humour is nothing but exaggeration which can be seen as offensive or funny," says Elsie Nanji, vice-chairman and chief creative officer, Publicis Ambience. "I think dark humour is good as it broadens your mind and helps you laugh at things beyond your control. But because we Indians are such an emotional set of people, dark humour may not work, unless used correctly." The onus for that falls on agencies. "You must know how much to push the envelope," says Raja. "You have to keep the cultural sensibilities in mind. I don't think there is any harm in dark humour as long as it doesn't hurt people." Of course, some feel that the as-long-as-it-doesn't-hurt clause is neither here nor there.

In M-Seal, however, there is an indication of the kind of dark humour that might work. Other than an odd squeak, next to everyone likes the ad - despite one of its central characters dying in the end. Why - because the joke was not on the man who dies but his scheming son. Unlike in the case of Roma or Asian Paints or ADD Sprint, the humour in M-Seal was deflected from the aspect of death. "We Indians love to laugh at other people, but trick is to see that you don't laugh at the wrong people for the wrong reasons," Paul explains. "It's all in the handling."

Nanji also thinks that dark humour could work well in product categories that target the youth. "This thing really appeals to youngsters with their irreverent attitudes," she says. "One reason we went ahead with the ad for ADD Sprint was because the ad talked to the youth." Nanji also reveals that the 'cyanide' idea was the outcome of a student workshop Publicis Ambience (then Ambience D'Arcy) had conducted. "Students came out with lots of scripts for the brand. And while I did think this one to be a bit bizarre, as an idea it was good, so I let it go through. If you can see the value of the idea, go for it." Raja too believes that agencies should push the envelope in this region. "Yes, you might have a price to pay in terms of offending some people, but it is worth it. Advertising will come out the richer."

But what about the social responsibility that advertising is vested with? Paul admits to the responsibility. "Yes, you cannot fiddle with values, which is why there aren't any easy answers here," he says. "Maybe some of it needs to be screened from kids. Then again, as long as the ad is not encouraging anyone to take a life, it's okay. Also, as long as the ad is talking to mature adults, you can't grudge it."

This is where today's consumer comes into focus. "Today's television audiences are much more ad literate than they were 15 years ago, and they will mature even more," D'Silva points out. "Today's audiences know an ad when they see one, and they react better. I think everyone will realize that the intent of the advertiser is not to insult anyone." Sharing a similar sentiment, Raja says, "Consumers have evolved, and look at ads as entertainment. I really think we in advertising are more obsessed about this than the consumer." © 2003 agencyfaqs!

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