A recent campaign for Vodafone features its now all-too-famous messenger, the pug, playing cupid to children. Industry watchers debate over whether a romantic angle involving 12-year-olds could be in distasteful territory, or can pass off as cute.
That brands across categories use the creative route of children emulating adult behaviour is far from a new concept, but when that adult behaviour includes romantic undertones, one wonders if things have been taken a step too far.
Rajiv Rao, national creative director, Ogilvy India, remarks that all along, Vodafone has spoken of the width of its network; this is among the first major attempts to talk of the quality of its network.
Too young for comfort?
Brand consultant Harish Bijoor of Harish Bijoor Consults is among those who feel the commercials are 'inappropriate for Indian society', simply because of the age group shown and the romantic subtleties involved. "Children are an innocent audience and in India, they get heavily influenced by advertising of all kinds," he says. "Advertisers should show some restraint while showing such things. While the attempt is cute and genteel when we look at it, we must try and view it from the eyes of a 8-10 year old," he adds.
To go deeper into the matter, children may think that they ought to behave like this with their friends of the opposite gender and perhaps adults with children in that age bracket may not take too kindly to such communication, either. "It is the kind of advertising that calls for 'parental guidance'," Bijoor cautions, "as Indian society is still a few steps behind Western ones in this regard."
The 'Uninterrupted conversations' ad, in particular, has privacy at its core and hence, points towards sexual innuendos, he feels. This may lead to boys thinking that every girl wants their attention. "Had teenagers been shown in the commercial, it would be fine. And while I love Vodafone ads, this is a wrong role model for children," he opines.
One might argue that television content, particularly some children's shows and dance reality shows, have children performing to hip shakes and other dance moves that are clearly meant for adults. "I would take offense at those, and I haven't seen concerned housewives raising hue and cry over these," remarks Minakshi Achan, co-founder and creative head, Salt Brand Solutions.
"The Vodafone ads are beautiful stories about friendship between 13 year olds," she says,
but one cannot ignore that not all of India is progressive in its thinking, and orthodox families may not take to such overtures in ads too kindly.
As Manish Bhatt, founder-director, Scarecrow Communications, puts it, some families may even rethink giving their children mobile phones for fear that it will be used for 'romance' talk at young ages.
"The way the girl looks at the boy clearly signifies romantic interest in the Scarf ad, whereas the Cycle ad has the boy's look almost bordering on lusty," he says. However, Bhatt is willing to overlook these things as the popular brand Vodafone has innocence at its core and in its legacy.
Rao of Ogilvy dismisses any talk of inappropriate advertising, though. To him and his team, the attempt is to show conversations between two people - in this case, a friendship is struck between a young boy and girl. "This is sweet friendship and doesn't have a 'Mera Naam Joker' like feel to the liking shown in the ads," he shrugs. "Our attempt was never to create a controversy and it is about real friendships at that age," he clarifies.
The Ogilvy team feels that employing a 6-7 year-old age band could have led to alarming questions and leveraging a teenage story would have made the ads 'lose their charm'. Hence, the 11-12 year old band is okay. This is about fond liking and is real, Rao states.
Supporting his point of view is K S Chakravarthy aka Chax, national creative director, Draftfcb Ulka, who says that it is the work of a "perverse mind" to read anything between the lines beyond the portrayal of innocent friendship between children.
The last word, though, belongs to sociologist Nandini Sardesai, who delves into how such subtleties could in fact affect children. "A child may, on seeing such an ad, feel that something is wrong with him if he doesn't look at a girl that way yet," she says. "While they see adults romancing on TV, it is fine, but this isn't something that is expected of them. To see something like this may rob them of their childhood early on."