The Advertising Police

27 Sep,2021

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By Prabhakar Mundkur


Prabhakar MundkurNever has marketing communication been under the scrutiny of so many, ever before in its history.


First, there are the regulatory bodies who look over your shoulder. While working in China in the late 1990s, and when censorship was much stricter perhaps than it is today, I remember having a tough time. In a commercial of mine, a student acts cheeky with his teacher. It was intended to be tongue-in-cheek, but the humour of the situation was lost on the powers that be. We were told that it went against the norms of the teacher-student relationship which went back to none other than Confucius who had articulated with great lucidity on the subject. I even remember, Close-up toothpaste, which was then running the ‘Kisses’ campaign in the US my version of the campaign for China, had two toothpaste tubes of Close-up coming together to suggest they were kissing. At the time, it was a big hit in countries like Indonesia, which again had strict censorship rules in place.


Coming back to the present moment, with the addition of the Department of Consumer Affairs being added in the last few years, means there are two watchdogs, a government watchdog and the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) which is the self-regulatory industry watchdog. One is not quite sure what the government watchdog has been up to since they don’t publish their achievements, but the ASCI publishes every quarter the cases disposed of by them which run into a few thousand. In addition to the regular cases which come under the Advertising Code, we now have a third entity that is policing advertising and that is the consumer.


The Culture Police


The Tanishq ad that got shot down by social media last year would have had no objections from either the ASCI or the Department of Consumer Affairs. But the social media police is quite another story. These are typically the cultural watchdogs if one may call them that. They scan the environment for cultural misdoings like the Tanishq ad which was innocently launched during Diwali last year to promote its Ekvatam collection. The YouTube description for the ad said: “She is married into a family that loves her like their own child. Only for her, they go out of their way to celebrate an occasion that they usually don’t. A beautiful confluence of two different religions, traditions, cultures.”


It was story of a Muslim family, with a Hindu daughter-in-law which was helping her to celebrate her own festivals. But the social media immediately jumped on to a conspiracy theory called ‘love-jihad’ which which accuses Muslims of converting Hindu girls to increase their own population.


A lot of people were shocked with the objections but nothing doing, Tanishq was forced to take the ad off the air to appease the social media groups especially when the danger manifested itself in crowds wanting to damage their Tanishq showrooms.


This is not just an Indian phenomenon but the culture police also exist in other countries. This is very familiar to the Ganesha ad that got shot down in Australia. Meat and Livestock Australia put our favourite Lord Ganesha in an ad which showed meat-eating.


This enraged the local Hindu groups who of course besides staging protests to Ad Standards, in Australia


The ad showed Lord Ganesha sitting and enjoying the meat with Jesus Christ, Moses, Aphrodite, lord Buddha, Zeus, Obi Wan Kenobi from Star Wars franchise along with Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology. Ad Standards Australia upheld the complaint from local Hindu organisations and the ad went off air.



The latest ad questioned by the Culture Police is Manyavar Mohey ad (Mohey is the brand for women) featuring Alia Bhatt which was received with mixed feelings. While the ad was trying to break away from the age-old practice associated with marriage, where the daughter like a commodity, ( kanyadaan), the ad proposed greater respect for women (kanyamaan ). Unfortunately, when celebrities like Kangana Ranaut join the culture police, the attack on ads become stronger. She is known to have said: “Don’t use religion to sell products.”



Again, not very different from the Pepsi ad which showed supermodel Kendall Jenner leading a Black Lives Matter movement with a fizzy can of Pepsi.



It provoked Martin Luther King’s daughter to make a blistering remark on Twitter, that read: “If only Daddy would have known about the power of #Pepsi.” Bernice King’s tweet was accompanied alongside a photo of her father being pushed back by police.


Another ad that was forced to bite the dust. 


The Human Rights Police


Here the human rights police objected to the extreme conditions that Zomato delivery men are put through when they don’t even get a moment to themselves between orders. In the commercial, Hrithik Roshan goes in to get his mobile to get a selfie with the Zomato delivery man. But the delivery man is so busy that he forgoes the opportunity of a pic with Hrithik because he is getting late for his next order. Zomato was quick to appease the trollers with their tweet which read, “We have been listening intently to the chatter about gig workers and the problems associated with this part of the economy. We understand you expect more and better from us”.


Advertising uses Figures of Speech

A few advertising regulators coupled with public groups on social media who keep a watch, means that advertising will have to be more careful than before. Diversity and inclusion is no longer an option, it is an imperative. In 2021, it will need to become a habit for most advertisers.


For the last 100 years or so, advertising has used figures of speech to communicate. So parody (humour), hyperbole (exaggeration ) to make a point, and metaphor (where a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable ) are some of the main figures of speech that advertising uses to make an impact.  Advertising can continue to use them but now will have to keep away from sensitive subjects.


A long time ago, Jerry Della Femina said: “I honestly believe that advertising is the most fun you can have with your clothes on”.


I am not so sure it is any longer for more than one reason. The times they are a changing!


Prabhakar Mundkur is a former advertising agency captain and has spent over four decades in marketing services across geographies. He is a prolific writer and was a few years back rated as among the top voices by LinkedIn. Other than advertising and writing, Prabs, as he is known to friends, is a very active musician and a self-taught producer of music. In the pandemic, he has performed and produced nearly 50 songs, including one with the very accomplished Usha Uthup. Mundkur’s views here are personal.


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