The Indian ad crisis

Last Updated: Sun, Apr 14, 2013 07:59 hrs

Seven days ago, 3,500 of the great and the good of India's advertising world packed the Zuri White Sands hotel in Goa's Varca Beach to hand out awards to the most "creative" in their midst. But this was no normal Goafest; it continues to have ripples through the industry. The week since has seen three advertisements that won at Goafest this year withdrawn. Three agencies have withdrawn winning entries, or have been asked to withdraw their winning entry: Leo Burnett, DDB Mudra and BBDO. Mudra and BBDO were caught in plagiarism scandals, having apparently copied the salient parts of their winning campaigns from Brazilian and Singaporean advertisements respectively. Leo Burnett withdrew its radio spots for Tata Salt Lite because, reportedly, the advertisements hadn't been "legitimately released." Remember, Goafest had already begun under a cloud. First, news broke that Ogilvy India was staying away this year. Then, posters went viral on the internet showing absurdly overdrawn scantily-clad women tied up in the boot of a Ford Figo driven by Silvio Berlusconi. JWT, under pressure to sweep the awards in the absence of Ogilvy, owned up to the posters being created essentially to win an award, and fired several employees, including its creative head Bobby Pawar. Ford hastily dissociated itself from the ads, and fired the executive who had signed off on them.

Much of the subsequent discussion has focused on such "scam ads" - advertisements created solely to win awards. They receive less than full approval from the client, and are often run in obscure print publications to satisfy the nominal requirements for entry. Officially, the industry frowns on the practice. It is considered a breach of the client's trust to play with a brand's image for self-aggrandisement in this manner. But voices have been raised within the industry in favour of the practice, too. Creative people should be allowed to exercise their creativity, some have said. It has also been pointed out, correctly, that it has been almost standard practice to try and run under-the-radar campaigns for brands that push the envelope, in the hope that they will go viral on the internet - and that this practice frequently has the client's connivance. Which client wouldn't want the good publicity that would result from being shared countless times on Facebook and Twitter?

The problem is that the advertising world has got it all backwards. Yes, scam advertisements are a betrayal of the client's trust. But the real negative with advertisements like the posters for the Ford Figo is that they are, simply, in poor taste. Demanding that "creative types" be given free rein is only an aspect of a larger macho culture in the advertising world that also gives rise to sadly sexist and insensitive advertisements like the Ford Figo posters. After all, as several people had pointed out, what if they had obtained Ford's approval? Would that have made things all right? Clearly not. Indeed, there are advertisements being run right now that are quite unpleasantly insensitive - but clearly have the client's approval. One such is the one by Lowe Lintas for Micromax which, beautifully shot, purports to show a foreign correspondent covering a brutal execution in some Southeast Asian country - except that the guns shoot paint, not bullets, allowing the advertisement to end with the phones' tagline "colours come alive". There is little doubt that this is a real, not a scam advertisement. But it leaves a terrible taste in the mouth - the way it spoofs horrific real-world situations is deeply unpleasant. The agency describes it as "mad, and slightly evil". That, in a nutshell, is the bigger problem facing the advertising world.

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