The news that the Maharashtra Food and Drug Administration has asked well-known consumer product company Johnson & Johnson to drop the word "baby" in the description of its products could have far reaching consequences for marketing in India.
What is more intriguing is that, in what might well turn out to be a new step for regulation in this country, the FDA commissioner has warned that the net to catch products selling "dreams" will be spread wider. The implication, apparently, is that any product that claims to have properties or ingredients targeting a specific group should have medical or scientific evidence to back it. So are the "dream merchants," who are already threatened by the proposed fringe benefit tax that strangely includes sales promotion and publicity, likely to be under siege?
Given the regulatory zeal that has come over some of the agencies in recent times, it seems one should be prepared for anything. Should one expect then that every statement made in promoting the sale of a product, whether on the product itself, or in the advertisement or implied in many possible ways on TV commercials, will have to be justified in a language that would satisfy a punctilious lawyer or a civil servant? Then what happens to the business of competitive persuasion, appeal to emotion and the creation of an experience, all of which have some role in the marketing of personal products in particular? These are some of the broader issues that this kind of bureaucratic thinking raises.
I do not propose to sit in judgement over why this particular complaint came to the notice of the FDA in Mumbai, nor whether the reports about the harmful or irritating effect on babies' skins were true or not. The more interesting aspect is whether anyone can hope to bring product claims that are strictly in the arena of `dreams' under scrutiny and rational enquiry. How would one test the claim that film stars use a well-known brand of toilet soap and that it could give you (the sixteen-year-old aspiring beauty) the complexion of a Nargis 50 years ago or of Aishwarya Rai today? Would you want to actually examine a number of film stars and ask them to swear on affidavit that it was this particular brand they always depended on for their complexion, and not their imported make-up kit?
The baby range of J&J products has been famous for over half-a-century in this country and the company is known all over the world for soaps, talcum powder, oils and other accessories accepted as good enough for tender skins, with which millions are familiar, and indeed might well have started their lives. Indeed, for baby care products, J&J is the gold standard. It is also a fact of marketing life that anyone in the toiletries category who has ever tried to launch a direct offensive against the J&J position, with similar baby products, has seldom succeeded.
Pond's, Pears, and Wipro are other brands that come to mind. In the case of soaps, Pears is a good example of a special ingredient-based (glycerine) category that has been a household name for over a hundred years or so, with no one being in any doubts about the softness and gentleness claim. Whether or not it was explicitly advertised as also for babies or only for them, mothers have trusted it and used it for themselves as well - and the "babies over 21" too. It would be infantile to suggest that any deception was implied in the brand being so positioned, as all but the literal-minded would agree. And mothers aren't dumb - or likely - to take chances with babies. Ask your own mother or wife as the case may be!
The whole business of branding rests on the premise that people take what they want from an advertisement or product claim, not what the manufacturer says on its behalf. Only some activists and socialist theoreticians still attribute to the brand owner the omnipotent capability to mask all his defects and hoodwink the consumer time after time. Reality is vastly different. In truth, brands are trustworthiness encoded. To betray the trust by not providing what the product promises would be to shoot oneself in the foot. And every marketing man, who has cut his teeth in the branded packaged goods arena by relentlessly competing for customer attention, knows this very well.
Nevertheless, it is true that some rather trivial everyday products (low-involvement purchases, as the theorists would call them) such as toothpaste, soap, shaving cream and so on do make statements especially in the commercials - but mercifully not on the package itself - that would strain one's credulity if taken too seriously. That is the key phrase - one is not, I submit, expected to take any of it too seriously but with a pinch of humour and metaphor. Of course, the product should not deliver the opposite of the benefit it is supposed to - but if using a deodorant doesn't exactly result in the girls swooning all over you, it is not expected that you'd sue the advertiser for making false claims. Surely, it is not the intention in today's world that the average buyer of these products would assume the literal meaning of a term like "the best a man can get" as the real value from using a range of shaving products? I believe the time has come to give the consumer credit for a lot more intelligence than we have done hitherto.
Besides all this, there remains the cold truth that the ingredients that go into many everyday-use products often have no magic in them. The good old cold cream or deep cleanser, a favourite of Northern and Easter Indian homes in winter as anti-dry skin emollient, is but a mix of oils and waxes, some organic, and some from inorganic sources; so too every moisturising lotion - usually a different mix with a high content of pure water that spreads a cooling sensation on the skin. It is astounding that the use of mineral oils in baby oil surprises the authority today! For over a century, children all over the world, including most readers of this article, I dare say, have applied white petroleum jelly as the trusted home remedy for the daily bruises and cuts earned as trophies on the playground. It is also probably the commonest and safest known protection against nappy rash. Few knew Vaseline was a brand, which had become a synonym for this petroleum derivative, which in turn was an accidental discovery during oil drilling in the closing years of the 19th century.
That many consumer product brand marketers such as Lever, Procter & Gamble, Nestle and Glaxo, besides J&J, are multinationals - and are successful at it - used to be a matter of some regret to those who wanted Indian companies to be able to challenge them in this manifestly "low-tech" area. This has happened, as we well know, in a number of product categories. So the knowledge of the tricks of the trade in selling, merchandising or advertising dreams is universal and mostly in the public domain. So, except where positive intent to harm can be traced to the deeds of manufacturer, they must be allowed to sell their so-called `dreams' within reason. Life is pretty grim as it is, without our taking the editorial blue pencil to product names and brand claims as well.
(The author is a student and observer of markets, people and organisations.)