Guest Column: Is the ASCI Code stifling creativity in advertising?

Over a period of time, the fiercest creative minds learn to treat these limitations not as obstacles to crafting great brand messages but worthy adversaries who force their minds into a higher gear, says communication consultant Paritosh Joshi

e4m by Paritosh Joshi
Updated: Mar 18, 2015 8:29 AM
Guest Column: Is the ASCI Code stifling creativity in advertising?

Restrictions are oppressive. Rules are shackles. Complying is cowardly and submissive. By implication, restrictions must be flouted. Rules are meant to be broken. Defiance is liberating.

Sounds like a post adolescent anarchic creed?

Throw in dishevelled hair, Lennon glasses and/or a Ché tee and that might have been me. Thirty-some years ago. Then life happened.

Realisations began creeping up. Actions had consequences. Newton’s Third Law: that every action has an equal and opposite reaction; seemed to apply to all of life. My rights ended where yours began. Other realisations struck home too. I was a part of a social contract that had endured from the dawn of civilisation that bestowed innumerable privileges upon me but these came at a small price. I had to surrender some of my degrees of freedom to ensure uninterrupted enjoyment of the goodies.

Wondering where I am going with this?

It is now a judicial consensus in all most all open societies that the right of free speech extends, subject to varying levels of restriction, to commercial free speech as well. In other words, not only are individuals allowed to voice their thoughts without fear of persecution, businesses and other organisations enjoy that right too. Commercial free speech includes advertising and other methods of business canvassing. It also extends to PR, activism, surveys/opinion polls and direct response programs. However, there are clear caveats placed upon commercial free speech that don’t apply to individual rights. The precise juridical arguments used by courts to restrict commercial free speech vary but all share a common central notion. Commercial speech is prohibited from being “false and misleading”.

Moral No. 1: Creativity in advertising must end where misrepresentation or falsehood begin.

Everyone is now familiar with the inherent limitation each media vehicle places upon advertising communication. You can’t write long-form copy for billboards and hoardings. Television advertisements should generally be 30” or shorter given the prohibitive cost of media time. Radio spots benefit from catchy, memorable jingles. A good PR story is weakened when carried in glossy supplements and enhanced if it gets into the main newspaper.

Over a period of time, the fiercest creative minds learn to treat these limitations not as obstacles to crafting great brand messages but worthy adversaries who force their minds into a higher gear. This is not unusual. Or new. A personal favourite is the intricately detailed, lavishly but very precisely rendered works of Rajasthani Miniature painters. Generally no larger than 15 cm x 20 cm in landscape or portrait, these exquisite artworks ranged from individual studies to elaborate scenes of Ras Lila, Holi revelries or kings holding court. Think of what advertising creatives do as running an assembly line that produces miniatures on demand covering every theme under the sun.


Miniature painters had one additional constraint. Their work would be in the keep of and pored over by members of the aristocracy or royalty. Sensibilities were delicate and even a slight error of judgement on the depiction of the divine amours of Radha-Krishna might have fateful consequences.

The reckoning is quite straight forward. “Sex sells”. Pick a category: soap, biscuit, bathroom faucet, motor car, smartphone, quick-service restaurant; plonk in scantily clad, pleasantly upholstered woman, write cheesy line with plenty of double entendre. Voila! Ad’s up.

No, doesn’t add up. You don’t have a prude to know that someone just took a cheap shortcut. Such brazen exploitation of the female form not only flies in the face of every tenet of decency, it insults the intelligence of the audience. David Ogilvy said this just once but it has since been quoted a zillion times. “The consumer is not a moron, she is your wife”.

Moral no. 2: Sex sells but most times, all that it sells is itself.

It’s cricket season and all things cricket are never far away from our minds. Just a few weeks back, India beat South Africa for the first time in a World Cup fixture at the legendary Melbourne Cricket Ground- MCG. However, MCG was also in the news on February 1, 1981 when Australia played New Zealand there for the third match of a best-of-five finals playoff for the B&H World Cup. The first two matches had produced a 1-1 result and NZ was 6 short of tying the third. Brian McKechnie, no great batsman, was wiling to give the last ball an almighty heave-ho to get the ball over the ropes. Greg Chappell, Australia’s then captain asked his kid brother Trevor, finishing up his last over, to bowl, horror of horrors, underarm. The ball skid along the ground. McKechnie could do nothing. And Ian, the eldest brother in the commentary box was heard saying “No, Greg, no, you can't do that”.

Every competition, at least in the civilised world populated by decent people, has much to learn from the ignominious day 34 years back. Underhand attacks, low-blows, hits below the belt, are just bad news. They bring shame to the game and to all its players and followers.

Listen up, advertising people. Decency and fairness matters here too. When you declare leadership in a category so defined as to have only one participant viz. your brand, you are (a) channelling Greg Chappell and (b) violating the spirit of fair play.

Moral No. 3: Don’t allow a piece of communication to go out before asking yourself if someone might describe it as “It’s just not Cricket”.

Here endeth the lesson!

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