Aishwarya Ramesh & Shreyas Kulkarni

When all publicity is not good publicity

The Layer’r Shot ad has put the spotlight on the pitfalls of in-house creative teams and why checks and balances are crucial to good advertising.

Deodorant brand Layer’r Shot had advertising folk and anyone who had seen the two ads by the brand in a state of outrage all weekend, and rightfully so. The two ads which were circulating on social media made light of rape, in particular gang rape. The brand issued an apology on Monday, wherein it claimed it didn’t intend to hurt anyone’s feelings or outrage women’s modesty.

Many saw the ad on TV on Sony Sports and video streaming platform SonyLiv during the ad breaks of the recently concluded England vs New Zealand test cricket match.

The Advertising Standards Council of India and the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting were called upon to take action on the crass ad and the company was ordered to take the ads off air. ASCI leapt into action and ordered the brand to take down the ad on June 3. Later, MIB also stepped in and sought removal of the ad from user’s accounts on YouTube and Twitter.

Using Sexual Appeal

In India and world over, the deodorant category and several others have used sexual attraction to sell products. But this ad crossed the boundary of sexual attraction and introduced more worrying theme – sexual harassment. “Portraying attraction from the opposite sex is not offensive in itself, but the content of Layer’r Shot ads were just vile,” says Thinkstr's founder and chief creative officer, Satbir Singh.

Satbir Singh
Satbir Singh

Several brands in the deodorant category have used the sexual appeal trope, sometimes subtly and other times in a garish manner. Brands like Wildstone and Axe have used sexual appeal while taking into account factors like consent, empowerment, and humour.

Gulshan Singh, chief strategy officer, Tilt Brand Solutions, says the Layer’r Shot ads didn’t just ignore the power imbalance that exists between the genders in India, they played it up. “In fact, the ‘twist’ in the execution rested on the discomfort caused to the sole female character.”

Checks and balances

Given how jarringly tone-deaf the ads were, many have been wondering – how did the ad even get past all basic hygiene checks? Is it an outcome of in-house teams with very little oversight?

Thinkstr's Singh explains that mainline ad agencies come with a time-tested hierarchy and multiple levels of approvals. “The hierarchy works as a good filtration process. Ideas eventually get sifted through various levels and red flags are raised during this process. This is why it’s rare to see an ad which is perceived as offensive coming from a mainline agency,” he says.

Singh adds that it's not just the creative team itself, but the strategy team and client servicing team could act as a fresh pair of eyes on an idea and become more levels of filtration in the idea.

Fewer levels of approvals do not have to give rise to problematic ads. Manisha Kapoor, CEO, ASCI, stresses that advertisers must familiarise themselves with the ASCI codes and the law of the land. “Advertisers can also consult ASCI before the ad is made so that such errors are nipped in the bud and the consumers are not exposed to such objectionable advertising,” she says.

Manisha Kapoor
Manisha Kapoor

Creating a viral controversy

Controversy is an organic mode to achieve widespread reach and awareness, some would say. Prathap Suthan, managing partner and chief creative officer, Bang in the Middle, says, “this is a deliberate attempt and they could have done this to rake up controversy for the brand.”

Prathap Suthan
Prathap Suthan

Does it work, no matter what the controversy? Tilt Brand Solutions' Singh, says the days of ‘any publicity is good publicity’ are long gone – for brands anyway.

“There are multiple strategic reasons for Layer’r Shot to be worried about this publicity. Consider the TG – urban, Gen Z males. Multiple studies have demonstrated that this is the most progressive generation yet, highly concerned about macro issues, with gender equality being amongst the most prominent. Trying to appeal to this TG with communication that is tone deaf to the issues that matter to them is highly unlikely to create any positive impact for the brand,” says Singh.

Gulshan Singh
Gulshan Singh

Further, the ad stands to alienate women too. “Even if the brand was counting on creating appeal with males (unlikely), they should have anticipated that this creative would offend women – especially considering the regular headlines concerning crimes against women. As it happens, they’ve managed to offend people irrespective of gender or age,” he adds.

It does not help the brand that the internet keeps a permanent record of everything. The negative publicity from this incident is likely to impact and restrict what the brand can do in the future.

Brand Safety

When snippets of the ad were shared on social media and the prominence of the channel logo (Sony Ten) were hard to miss. Is brand safety another concern of poorly vetted ads? Paritosh Joshi, principal, Provocateur Advisory, says that the specific media platform on which the ad eventually becomes blurry in people’s minds. “People are exposed to such a volume of advertising every day that it is impossible for anybody to say ‘I saw this ad here’. Even if somebody was adversely against this ad, the likelihood they will remember on which channel they saw it is unlikely.”

Paritosh Joshi
Paritosh Joshi

What is more likely to happen is that brands will not wish to be associated with Layer’r Shot as a brand. Joshi says that companies that worry about brand safety will tell their media planners to steer clear of ad placements near this particular brand.

Consequences and fines

Other than a suspension of the ad, the brand faces no other legal action. “Further punitive action, if any, need to be taken under the legal provisions available on this matter,” says Kapoor. The distasteful nature of the ad also saw people from within and outside the advertising fraternity demand that the brand be fined and boycotted.

Fines, if any, can be levied if the brand is found to be guilty of harming the consumer. Can the Consumer Protection Act be used in cases like these? “The Act primarily deals with misleading ads, hence this doesn't directly fall under the CP Act,” Kapoor points out.

Have news to share? Write to us