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Let’s not paint the whole ad industry with black paint because of one culprit, says ASCI chairman Subhash Kamath

At the launch of ASCI guidelines around gender sensitivity in ads, Kamath spoke about the advertising industry’s responsibility in today’s time, being culturally sensitive and his views on taking strict actions against serial offenders in the ad world

Subhash Kamath

Last week, perfume brand Layer’r Shot’s ad was under fire for ‘promoting rape culture’. But since then, the social media police and thought leaders across the country are calling out the ad industry for being gender insensitive, objectifying women in ads, irresponsible and selfish for letting such an ad come out in the open.

By the time the ad was pulled off air, it was already seen by several people and had already caused the damage it could’ve, and also benefitted from the publicity. Several people pointed out why wasn’t the ad stopped before it went on-air or on the internet. Who is to be held responsible for this? Isn’t there a firewall in place to not let such ads pass without a check?

Commenting on the matter, Subhash Kamath, Chairman, Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), said, “Let’s not paint the whole ad industry with black paint because of one culprit. We also believe that our agencies and brands are responsible enough. In most cases they are. We have a serious commitment to self-regulation from our members and enjoy 97-98% compliance with CCC rulings.”

He further said, “I don’t think any brand can benefit from such an act. It harms the brand in the long run. If one thinks that by doing something as outrageously disgusting as the deodorant ad and getting away with a few minutes of fame; in the long run, the brand will actually harm itself. As an advertising man with an experience of 35 years, I will never recommend the client to resort to that.”

Kamath was speaking at the launch event of ASCI guidelines around gender sensitivity in ads. 

Kamath said that the Layer’r Shot ad only shows there is a huge amount of sensitisation that needs to be done in terms of how we portray genders in advertising. He questioned, “Why should a typical film start with a man reading The Economic Times and the woman making him a cup of tea? Why can’t it be the other way round? Why does a family represented in an ad have an older boy and a younger girl? Why can’t there be a family with two girls? Some of these things are blatantly obvious, and some of them are conditioned in our psychics.” 

In one of’s previous stories on Layer’r Shot ad, several industry veterans had called for strict actions against the brand and penalties so that this grave mistake is not repeated again. 

Sharing his viewpoint on taking stronger actions and putting penalties on serial offenders, Kamath said that ASCI can only act upon the regulations and guidelines in place and it is the law’s duty to punish or take strict actions. 

He said, “No matter how strong the police force is, it doesn’t stop the crime in totality. People keep on asking if there should be strict punishments than just pulling off the ads that put women in a bad light in the ads. My question is, who is going to decide what the penalty is? It should be the law. The law should decide the penalty. As self-regulators, our primary objective is to ensure that the ad is pulled off immediately and we succeeded in doing it.”

He added, “One side is that we must have strict actions against people who violate the guidelines; the other side is that we also need to sensitise and educate people on the right way to do things. The gender guidelines will educate people to be sensitive toward gender representations in ads. We are speeding up our complaints and redressal process to catch the violators.”

There have been instances where brands have been vocal about sexual orientation and genders, but have been called out, trolled and become part of the whole cancel culture. Is there any guideline to protect the brand from such public wrath that does not force them to take the ad off-air? 

To which, Kamath answered, “When brands take a stand for the LGBTQ community and other such things, we can’t really predict its future because the reaction comes from the people post the ad going live. It’s a great thing for brands to show solidarity, acceptance and inclusivity of people’s different sexual orientations. But one can’t forecast people’s reactions, especially in today’s world.” 

He then pointed out that we have been calling the advertising industry the mirror of society for a long time now, which needs to change because of the times we live in. He commented, “The way society has changed, we cannot afford to remain just a mirror of society. I believe with all the persuasive power advertising has, if we can move millions of people to buy a particular brand of soap or shampoo, we have the power to influence mindsets, decision making, actions, and behavioural changes. Therefore, we can’t just sit back and say that we are the mirror of society. We need to help shape the narrative.”

Further commenting on where India stands in comparison to the western world when it comes to gender sensitivity and guidelines surrounding it, Kamath said, “Different countries have different cultures and we need to be culturally sensitive. I have worked on brands where something will be accepted in Brazil and will be completely outrageous in a country like India. What works in the US is completely different from what works in India. However, there are universal truths and people should be cognisant of what actually is relevant, safe and responsible in the context of where they are operating.” 

To educate and raise awareness amongst the advertising and marketing fraternity, ASCI has been giving training to corporates and advising them on ads before it goes to the production stage.

On June 8, 2022, ASCI released guidelines that guard against harmful gender stereotypes. While the guidelines focus on women, they also provide guardrails for the depiction of other genders. The guidelines encourage advertisers and creators to deploy the SEA (Self-esteemed – Empowered – Allied) framework that guides stakeholders in imagining as well as evaluating portrayals of gender in their advertising by building empathy and aiding evaluation, as well as the 3S framework, which provides a checklist to guard against tropes and implicit stereotypes that creep into advertising.

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