Condom ad ban: protection of a different kind

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In India, the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting recently banned airing of condom ads during daytime. The move came under criticism – see some reactions here, here and here. ‘It is moral policing’, ‘our kids need sex education’, ‘our kids have access to more risqué content everywhere from movies to the internet’ are some of the arguments put forth while criticising the ban. While I agree with some of the points raised, especially the one about ‘age inappropriate content being made and distributed, across categories and platforms’, I welcome the move to ban the ads during daytime.

Classic print ad for Durex from 2001. Agency: Lowe Bull, Cape Town

As with many categories, the condom category has product parity. Any product differentiation can be easily copied by a competitor and so marketing is based on selling an imagery. Brand preference is then built on the ability to connect with the target audience by producing buzz-worthy creative. Humour, topicality, innuendo, titillation are all par for the course in the category for years.

A funny take on the category comparing ‘cost’ of parenthood to that of a condom.

In India, family planning ads (for Nirodh, for example) have been around for decades and were shown on television and cinemas. Over the years, category ads have increasingly turned raunchy (in line with what has become the norm in popular culture like movies, I guess) and have also become regulars on prime time, particularly during live sporting events which are likely to have high viewership of kids. In my view, saying children must be exposed to such category ads as part of increasing their awareness does not wash. Many have mocked this move, bringing in ‘sanskaari‘ reference etc., but I am sure no parent will allow unfettered access to any kind of content for their kids. There is a definite need for sex education and aspects related to growing up – but that has to come from the right source, in a right environment and in the right format. Titillating, crass commercials is not sex education- it is just age-inappropriate content. It only has a negative influence on kids. Sure it is not just this category where we see such. Ads for deodorants, surrogate alcohol brands are culprits too. But nothing beats the adverse influence of our film industry (especially Hindi films) with their ‘item songs, explicit scenes and so on. ‘New media’ led by web-only films are also full of age-inappropriate stuff.  Our kids are growing up in times where media influence is strong – the way it has never been before. They are bombarded with video content through their parents’ mobile devices (or their own) and that includes a lot of sleaze, objectification of women. I am not saying that our popular culture should reflect sensibilities of the 1960s but our film-makers have become emboldened to take titillation and objectification of women to another level. Seen the poster of this movie? The makers of the movie and the promotional posters know full well that it is full of innuendo and likely to get the laughs from a certain age group. But such imagery (and worse) is now accessible to an age group which should not be seeing such.

In the film industry, there is no such thing as self regulation. They know that a certain kind of plot, sequence or song is a must for commercial success and in our ’24×7 media’ world every platform is utilised to create hype. While there is a censor board to ‘regulate’ content, the online world gives access to all kinds of content to everyone. In advertising, ASCI can address complaints regarding an advertisement after it has been aired – there is no provision for pre-screening. And in the online world, there is no such recourse. Digital media is a free-for-all and web-only short films are a boon to ad film and movie industry. There is no restriction of duration and one is allowed to use cuss words freely. Again, these are ‘meant’ to be targeted at youth – which is perfectly alright but algorithms being what they are, there is no telling who is exposed to such content. Recently, there was a furore over the kind of explicit content visible on YouTube and Google is taking the issue seriously.

However, there is not enough education about safe surfing aimed at parents of small children. I am not sure how many parents enforce content filters or simply turn on the ‘strict content filtering’ mode on YouTube, which is a popular destination for movies, entertainment, education and so on. In a country like India where many are getting exposed to the online world for the first time, education on safe surfing is important.

In such a media environment, protecting children from age-inappropriate content is a welcome move. Your views? Do comment in.

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