Brands using social issues in shallow ways leading to controversies: ASCI report

Based on complaints against 480-odd ads over the past three years, ASCI undertook a deep dive to identify what offends Indian consumers the most

e4m by Kanchan Srivastava
Published: Jan 13, 2022 9:21 AM  | 4 min read

Ads that portray men poorly, show scantily-dressed women or boast about financial gains are the ones that irk Indian consumers the most, finds a recent study conducted by the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI). The report that was released on Thursday, is based on over 1,700-odd complaints against 488 advertisements that the ASCI received over the last three years. 

The ads covered include those that may not necessarily be in violation of ASCI codes, but nevertheless offended people and groups, due to a number of reasons such as the shallow portrayal of social issues and objectification of men and women. 

The report highlights that brands today use "social issues" in very shallow ways, with negligible understanding or investment in the actual cause. In such cases, they do run the risk of being called out by citizens who feel that the representations are incorrect or improper. In some cases, it is about depictions and vocabulary that may not be thought through.

The report titled ‘What India Takes Offense To’ highlights six major triggers: 

  1. Ads that are seen to reinforce socially undesirable depictions for commercial gains (e.g. WhitehatJr ad to enroll kids for coding & CRED ad featuring Rahul Dravid as a goon) 

  2. Ads that are seen to be inappropriate for children and are aired during prime time or family viewing time (e.g Parle Kismi toffee ad wherein a pre-teenage girl asks her boyfriend for a kiss) 

  3. Ads that portray characters that seem to either cross boundaries set by society or make fun of what the societal culture considers sacred (e.g Amul Macho ad featuring Vicky Kaushal about male gaze) 

  4. Ads that are seen to mock men (e.g. Pepperfry ad that shows a furious woman throwing knives at a man).

  5. Ads that are seen to hurt religious sentiments (e.g. Alia Bhat’s Manyavar ad) 

  6. Ads that depict unpleasant realities (e.g. sanitary napkins ads by Stayfree & Licious chicken products) 

Not all criticism is genuine 

ASCI study points out that there is also a growing trend of ads and brands getting trolled on social media when an individual or a group takes offense to a particular message or depiction. “While in some cases, the offense is genuine and justified, in others, it is observed that some people seem to be intent on assigning a devious agenda to a particular ad where none actually exists,” the report states. 

It noted, “Creativity always tries to push boundaries, provoke new thinking, nudges us to see things differently. And some thoughts and depictions may seem jarring at first, not all of them are harmful. Indeed some could actually help establish more progressive and equitable narratives.”

ASCI says most ads prima facie violate Chapter II that requires ads to be within the generally prevailing norms of decency and propriety, and Chapter III, which requires that ads do not depict situations that could be harmful to individuals or society. 

Why do people get offended? 

ASCI undertook a deep dive to identify the articulation of the complaint along with the desired action asked for. 

“What offends us in advertising depends on many factors. Besides the actual content of ads, who we view ads with, our life stage, the proximate context of our societal environment, our own sense of identity and the collectives we belong to all play a role in determining our response to advertising. What offends one individual or a group may be completely innocuous to another,” says ASCI general secretary Manisha Kapoor. 

Kapoor admits that making a recommendation on whether ads can cause widespread and grave offense or harm is often a matter of intense debate. Some of the examples quoted in this report were not found violative of ASCI's code.

Course correction for brands 

Kapoor says, “We hope that the report’s insights could help advertisers plan their campaigns better, or help them respond better to consumer sentiments. Some could be easier fixes, such as planning media placements with greater awareness and sensitivity, others might consider an alteration to depictions that are incidental to a film's script, but may have the potential to trigger people.”

“In some cases, the brands may take a call to stand firmly behind their advertising, particularly when the ad represents the very core of the brand philosophy. ASCI, through its Advertising Advice can also help advertisers avoid some of these pitfalls at the pre-production stage,” adds Kapoor. 

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