A couple of weeks ago, the Indian media was all agog with reports about how the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) raised an objection to a television commercial released by Subrata Roy’s Sahara Group to promote its newly launched Q Shop, touted as the adulteration-free retail chain. The advertisement in question showed our cricket stars, such as Sachin Tendulkar and Yuvraj Singh, doing things like performing the last rites for someone or digging a grave. The advertisement also had Virender Sehwag replacing a cradle with a hospital bed and Virat Kohli, if I remember correctly, offering someone a wheelchair. Downright innocuous or downright offensive, depending on how you choose to look at it.
But as it turned out, the BCCI had its way, or so it seems — the advertisement was withdrawn within a week of launch.
Controversy in advertising is really nothing new, and in 90 per cent of the cases the controversy is intentional. The idea, creative guys say, is to be hard-hitting so as to get a point across quickly, in the most direct manner. And if the ad fails to do the job, the controversies surrounding the advertisements will do the job just fine. If earlier agencies were using sex and sensuality as a tool to achieve the same goal, increasingly advertisers are using the idea of death in various permutations and combinations to get noticed or remembered or both.
Here are two examples that fall under the first category that many of you will remember even today: the 1993 MR coffee commercial and the 1995 Tuff shoes ad. The ad for MR instant coffee (“Real pleasure does not come in an instant”) featuring Malaika Arora and Arbaaz Khan and much romping attracted a lot of criticism. After a series of legal proceedings, it was banned. The Tuff shoe commercial featured Madhu Sapre, Milind Soman, two pairs of shoes and one strategically placed python. A women’s group reportedly protested outside Madhu Sapre’s house and handed her father saris. The matter was later brought to court and dragged on much after Tuff shoes disappeared from the market.
Do such gimmicks work? Again, the answer is yes or no, depending on who you want to please. If nothing else, the said ads created fantastic recall for two largely unknown brands, and gave Malaika Arora/Arbaaz Khan, Madhu Sapre/Milind Soman instant recognisability. Thus, 80 per cent of the job was done, agency guys will say.
Now here’s the 2001 M-Seal “death” ad in brief. It starts with an old man on his deathbed with relatives standing around in silence. His lawyer passes his will around and the relatives gently accept the dying man’s bequeathal. But his unhappy son begs daddy to add a zero at the end of the Rs 1,000 he has inherited. Then he asks for more zeros. Having had his way, he dumps the hapless father and takes off purportedly to gloat over his newfound wealth. At the doorway, a drop of water from a leak overhead falls on the will, smudging the figure “1” at the beginning of the stated sum on the document. Serves him right, one is tempted to say — six zeros stare at him as his father passes away (“Sirf ek tapakti boond aapki kismat badal sakti hai.” Just one water droplet can change your fate).
Of course, at that time there was a lot of shock and awe in the media — how can the ad make fun of something as serious as death? But the point was this: while the central character dies at the end, the joke was not on the dying man; it was on his scheming son. With the benefit of hindsight, this particular ad did a lot for the category – which goes under the name of epoxy putty sealant – by making it more friendly and, in the process, taking it beyond the “industrial” segment into the “household” segment.
More recently, a commercial for the erstwhile Max New York Life had an idea that was striking for its sheer execution. This ad shows a wife who has just returned home and who is looking for her husband everywhere in the house, calling out his name, but failing to elicit a response. Finally, she walks into the balcony and finds her husband slumped on a chair. Tentatively, she touches him; surprised, the husband springs to his feet. She is relieved (the voice-over says, “Life mein rahein hamesha taiyyar”, or always be prepared in life). In the life insurance ad, there was no mention of the “d” word — it simply hung in the air like a poised dagger.
So, there you have it: it’s all in the handling, in the execution. In the end, the issue is about keeping sensibilities in mind, of political correctness. There is no harm in hawking shock and awe as long as it doesn’t hurt people. You must know how much to push the envelope. Just remember, censorship will get you an even more regressive audience.