Here is a story that, A young man emerges from the bathroom to find his parents glaring. He immediately takes off his shower cap and asks what’s wrong. His father shows him the pack of condoms they found in his room. “You have hurt us today, son,” says the sari-clad mother in Hindi. “We didn’t expect this from you,” the hunched father chimes in, adding with a pained expression: “Pudina?” Confused, the son squints and the camera zooms in on the green box of mint-flavored rubber.
“Why did you lie to us?” asks the mother, who had been desperately trying to cure her son’s childhood aversion to the mint by smuggling it into various hilarious dishes in vain. “We are happy that you are using a condom but please respect your mother,” the father signs off as his son starts scratching his wet head with a towel.
To the youth TV channel that recently created this safe sex awareness advertisement for World AIDS Day, we are sorry for spoiling the punchline. But given that they can now only air this campaign only between 10 pm and 6 am which means their young audience must look for it online during the day, we should probably be saying: “You’re welcome”.
Apart from supplying standup comedians and Twitterati fodder for jokes, the government’s recent curfew on condom ads because these are “indecent especially for children” and can “create unhealthy practices” has, quite predictably, divided the advertising industry. Some veterans describe the move as “archaic” and “last century”, reminding them of the 80s when sanitary napkin ads were banned before 11 pm, and Nirodh was distributed free to curb population.
That last product, in fact, was seen as so “thick and ugly” recalls ad guru Alyque Padamsee that it inspired him — as then head of Lowe Lintas — to create a “sexy” antithesis in the 90s: he named his client’s condom brand KamaSutra and ended its TV ad — showing models Pooja Bedi and Marc Robinson in the shower — with the tagline “For the pleasure of making love”. When the then chairman of the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) called him into their Lower Parel office and objected to the tagline, Padamsee shot back: “If not for making love, what is it for? Blowing balloons?”
Interestingly, while the condom ad curfew has given rise to concerns in a section of the industry about a culture policing malaise out to stifle creativity, many stalwarts are also welcoming the “jolt” that they believe would compel creative types to up the quality of advertisements and make them more family friendly.
“It tells the industry to behave itself,” says ad guru Piyush Pandey, the mustachioed executive chairman and creative director of Ogilvy & Mather India and South Asia, who has yet to find a single Indian condom ad that “is creative in any which way”.
Pandey — who believes that there is a thin line between provocative and crude — finds that innerwear brands and fragrance brands sometimes get it right. For instance, he enjoyed Wildstone’s recent “Lasting First Impression” ad in which a boss introduces his young daughter to his male employees at a party, appreciates an employee Kunal’s perfume and, the next morning, greets his daughter only to be baffled by her scent. “Kunal,” he mutters under his breath. “It’s naughty but nice,” says Pandey.
Many products — from watches to mango juices — have lent themselves to both lip-biting sensuality and covert innuendoes. “The story is dictated by the positioning and the target audience,” says brand consultant Sourabh Mishra, who during his ad agency stint, once linked biscuits aimed at teenagers with the idea of romance — a thought he saw playfully being carried forward in the ad for Milano cookies featuring Hrithik Roshan in which raw materials such as flour and milk embellish a playful physical interaction between a couple. Mishra — who fears such curbs might see the industry “falling in line” and lapsing into “mediocrity”— even relished the exchange in a Fastrack watch advert where a girl asks a sweaty boy: “Burnt enough calories for the day?” “No I need to burn 350 more,” he says. “I can help,” she quips and he does a double-take. “But these are encoded little hints of the copywriters having fun, and don’t have a wide reach,” says Mishra.
Take the ad for Moods Condoms which shows a group playing the spin-the-bottle party game where a man is about to kiss a girl on the lips but decides to kiss her hand instead to flow into the tagline: “Play It Right.” Hari Ganesh Desikan of Chennai’s Rediffusion Y & R, which carefully created the family-friendly and for the public sector brand, says the ad wasn’t just targeted at the easy-to-please urban male but at “a small-town male who thinks that a condom is a sign of male weakness”.
Govind Pandey, CEO of TBWA India, says there is a constant search for the sweet spot between “classy and salacious”. “There is beauty in handling taboo subjects in a nuanced way,” says Pandey, who was recently as impressed by a jewellery brand showing a woman prepping for her second marriage as he was appalled by a cement brand’s “desperate, lazy” TV commercial showing a woman emerging from the water in a swimsuit for no reason.
Abhijit Avasthi, former Ogilvy CCO and founder of Sideways Consulting, feels fear of a social media backlash is the bigger threat to creativity than the recent curb. “So many advertisers have started to play it very safe. They constantly worry about repercussions of pushing the boundaries,” he says. “Earlier we had just one filter: “Is the campaign true to the brand?” he says. “Today, people can make an issue out of a non-issue which has added another filter: Will they object?” says Avasthi, a bit wary of the increasing tendency towards political correctness that has not only crept into the portrayal of women, religion and mythology in adverts but also seemingly light subjects such as children’s behaviour.
He recalls a particular script revolving around kids being met with: “How are you showing kids speaking to elders like that?”
However, the public alone has the right to reject an ad, believes industry veteran KV Sridhar aka Pops, who calls “ignorance” the greater evil. He was part of a team that once designed an ad to show a bike that was so comfortable that the rider gets his shoe polished while seated on it and then, turns the bike around to get the other shoe polished but it was pulled out as it “showed child labour” which Sridhar says “wasn’t our intent.”
However, ads must keep up with social transitions, points out Sridhar, chief creative officer at HyperCollective, who was also one of the brains behind the fictitious, faceless character called Balbir Pasha that warned truck drivers and class four workers about the risks involved in unprotected sex and in turn, spawned enough parodies to become a cultural icon. He has also worked on sanitary pad ads at a time when they were not allowed to air before 11 pm. “In a free country,” says Sridhar, “if you are allowed to make a product, you must be able to advertise it”.
But creative concerns and moral arguments aside, Ganesh points out the larger problem that condom advertising must deal with: low market penetration. “Only five percent of Indian men buy condoms as of now,” he says. “So even a Sunny Leone couldn’t get enough men to buy them.”