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Condom ad curfew: An exercise in vain?

If certain ads were in bad taste, then why not take them off air instead of advising a timing curfew on condom ads? Is the step too regressive, especially when government is spending crores to make people aware about safe sex and population control measures, or were the brands actually indulging in sleazy advertising? BestMediaInfo.com analyses

The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting’s (MIB) advisory banning condom ads on primetime has not gone down well among people in general and intellectuals and public health experts in particular who called it an exercise in vain and too 'Sanskari' a move.

It is not for the first time that condoms are being advertised on TV. In fact, in the 1990s, it was the government’s decision to advertise about condoms and its usage, in order to fight the diseases such as sexually transmitted diseases (STD) and to promote family planning. Be it the Nirodh ad picturised on a wedding night or the famous ‘Hum Do Humare Do’, they were actually promoting the use of condoms, though indirectly.

A few years later came the ‘Balbir Pasha’ conceptualised by Lowe, which became the talk of the town and it went on encouraging Indians to use condoms.

What made the government issue an advisory?

As per various media reports, the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) had initiated the move by writing to the MIB.

Shweta Purandare

Shweta Purandare, Secretary General, ASCI, said, “In the past, we had not received these huge number of complaints. Something must have triggered this, maybe some ads have come up in recent times that crossed limits and that might be a reason for people to be upset. Nobody thinks that ads should be banned in totality. From ASCI’s point of view also, if there is an ad that is perfectly fine for viewing along with children and family, there would not be any problem.”

What could have been the thought that went behind issuing such an advisory? Purandare said, “We didn’t ask for a ban. We received a lot of complaints about certain condom ads that they were vulgar. When the viewers complained, the council reviewed the ads and found that there wasn't anything objectionable. So, we did not take action. But the complainants were of the view that these ads were inappropriate for children and should be taken off air. Then we mulled over the timing and channels but that is not under our purview. That is for the ministry to consider. Based on this, we only gave them the feedback from the complainants. We have not taken the decision, the MIB has.”

Vishal Vyas

Vishal Vyas, General Manager (Marketing), TTK Protective Devices, (the company manufacturing Skore Condoms) believes that blanket ban for the category is not the right solution. "For our country, the need of the hour is to increase awareness of condoms and not to do something that impedes this process. Hence, yes, this ban is a step back," he said.

A section of the twitterati voiced their opinions, questioning the educational aspect of the condom ads. But, there are a lot of things that are pushed indirectly to make the message more interesting. There are ads from some a ‘specific brand’ wherein the protagonist stands in front of the camera and starts counting the services and benefits offered by that brand in a straightforward manner. A condom ad cannot go to an extent of using a black/whiteboard and giving out biology lessons. Indicative education and indirect encouragement is as important as direct messaging.

Purandare questioned, “What educational message is being given through these ads? To oppose this decision, people have suddenly brought about the issue of sex education.”

Brands may be using different ways to attract consumers by but at the end, the product promotes safe sex, feel experts.

“If consumers watch an ad, buy a condom and use it, the purpose is served,” said a brand custodian from one of the leading condom brands, on condition of anonymity. He further added, “Our legal department is preparing a comment to be sent to the ministry and hence, we can’t talk about it, but this is going to create a big challenge from the marketing point of view too. The category was expecting to grow at a healthy pace this year." 

Revenue loss for condom companies and broadcasters

The Rs 800-crore category is still capturing mere 5-6 per cent of the country’s population of over 1 billion. Since the mindset of most people is still conservative, about 70 per cent customers do not ask for any particular brand of condom. It depends on which brand a pharmacy sells. In such a scenario, marketing becomes all the more important for the players in this category.

Another major player said, “A lot of investment and effort goes into creating variants and flavours. This is one thing that differentiates us from the competition. Sadly enough, the variants contribute less than 40 per cent of the total sales of any condom brand. In order to increase the profit margins, variants need to become faster-moving in the category and that needs advertising.”

A senior media planner mentioned, “This is going to affect both advertisers and broadcasters as it will restrict visibility. A lot of times, there are inventory crunches and other issues. But a restriction on time band will hurt the most. Condom brands do advertise on all other media platforms, TV still has no parallel when it comes to reach and effectiveness.”

On an average, each of the players in the category spends close to Rs 20-22 crore on TV annually. Considering the major brands like Manforce that has a 35 per cent market share, followed by Skore and Moods, which have about 11-12 per cent each, Kohinoor and Kamasutra with 8 per cent each and then, Durex with 2-3 per cent – the brands would be spending anywhere close to Rs 120-150 crore on television. The broadcasters, too, will be hit by this decision. The ad rates on primetime are over 10-11 times more than that of the lean hours of 10pm to 6am.

The implementation challenges

Deepak Netram, SVP, Lodestar UM, said, “To begin with, if there is a restriction on timing, we will need to figure how to create a suitable plan. Then when it comes to buying, deals on genres and channels operating on ROS or RODP through the day would need to re-calibrated. It will also be interesting to see what channel systems and controls will be introduced to keep track of this aspect.”

It might become an executional nightmare. Most places have implemented automated ad insertions and this restriction on a particular category will need major modifications in the systems. Planners, buyers and people who work in the operations will have a tough time.

While most condom brand ads have stayed out of too much sexuality, the recent ads featuring actors Sunny Leone and Bipasha Basu have been sensual to a higher level. So then, does the fault lie in the government’s execution or the decision is at fault?

Nima Namchu

Nima Namchu, Chief Creative Officer, Havas Worldwide, believes that, “While some brands walk the edge while making their commercials, it is not imperative for a condom ad to be risqué. Having said that, asking advertisers to tone down the content would have definitely been a more welcome move.”

Purandare explained that there are also norms of watershed hours followed internationally, according to which content for only adult viewing can be aired beyond certain hours. She suggested, “If somebody wants to be bold and push the envelope, they can do so in the watershed hours.”

Another industry observer pointed out another example of ‘imperfect’ timing. “There was a lot of hue and cry about showing toilet cleaner ads during dinner time. But it died down. How far can you impose bans and restrictions? I feel self-regulation is the key here.”

Vyas seconds Netram’s opinion on self-regulation, “The need today is to encourage more talk on condoms and not to hush it. Hence, this ban is not the order of the day. On the other hand, in a vast country like India, one should also respect the sensitivities of people and hence, it’s important from the brands’ and companies’ point of view to respect that and pro-actively practice self-regulation. This could be the desired scenario instead of the one we find ourselves in today.”

Are Condom ads actually sleazy?

Jitendra Dabas, Chief Strategy Officer, McCann WorldGroup, has, on the other hand, criticised the condom brands for not behaving responsibly while promoting their products. In one of his tweets, Dabas said, “While the government order is faulty in its application of the logic used in the order, the condom brands have also brought this onto themselves by creating predominantly ‘sleazy’ advertising, which does make it unsuitable to be watched by kids.”

If we take a closer look at all the ads telecast on TV, there are sleazier ads from categories that have no reason to be sensuous. Be it the deo category or a major ‘sportswear and watches’ brand that tries to be sexually appealing for no reason. But all of this has never been ‘banned’ on prime time, though such ads have been tackled by the council on a case-to-case basis. Shouldn’t same principle be applied to the condom ads as well?

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