5 observations about the Layer’r Shot ad controversy

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Over the last few days, couple of ads from a deodorant brand Layer’r Shot caused widespread outrage (and rightly so) in India. Both the ads are anchored on cheap word play around the brand name and lewd. In one ad, four men at a department store aisle look in the direction of a woman and ask, Hum char, aur ye sirf ek? Toh Shot kaun lega?” (‘There’s four of us and just one of it? Who will take the shot?). The petrified lady then realises that they are referring to the last SKU of the deo left. An equally offensive one has a bunch of boys entering a friend’s room, where he is with a woman. There’s innuendo about taking a ‘shot’ and the boys actually say ‘its our turn now’ – again referring to the brand name. It is obvious that such a casual reference to violence and rape culture shocked all. While the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) took action and the concerned ministry banned the ad, the episode raises a few disturbing questions and observations:

Gaps in approval process: while brief templates and due diligence in approval of creative is part of a regular process in large corporates and multi-nationals, there’s likely to be some method in the madness when it come to family-owned businesses or SMEs. No business can get to be successful without applying some smarts in marketing. Yet, it is obvious that checks & balances were not in place. Clients and agencies have their own formats and templates for both giving creative briefs (‘what to say?) and evaluating the creatives (‘does it meet the creative brief? Is it on brand?’). More importantly, applying common sense (which most of marketing is) doesn’t call for a formal process or template. The company behind the brand, Adjavis Venture Limited has a wide portfolio, has invested in celebrity advertising and ticks all the boxes of a successful consumer care company. But it’s baffling that something as horrific as this ‘idea’ was allowed to see light of day.

Silence across the chain: I am not sure if women were involved during any stage of the ‘process’ but it’s surprising that everyone went along to invest time, money and effort behind the ads. I have come across film production companies which refuse to be involved in categories such as tobacco or fairness creams. But someone actually produced the ad despite knowing the ‘script’ and got the actors (including women) to create a situation which ‘suggested’ sexual violence.

And then there’s the role of ‘account management’ if there was one. I am told that this was an in-house production but the principle of a professional ad agency account management still hold good. The best of account managers aren’t just ‘couriers’, meeting managers or ‘co-ordinators’ – they are gatekeepers and custodians of the brand. Here, they clearly failed in that responsibility. Ever since the separation of media planning & buying and creation of more and more ‘specialist’ units the account manager in ad agencies has very little scope to have a 360-degree of the brand. They are not aware of or part of several important aspects of brand strategy. That said, it should have been apparent to anyone coordinating this project that the idea should have been rejected straight away.

It is said that ‘50% of the credit for an ad should go the client’ (whether it is good or bad) – someone signed off on a script, approved the production budget and allocated media monies – knowing full well the innuendo behind the ad. It is scary to imagine the mindsets which thought this was funny or cool, given that they interact with women at home and work.

Finally, the role of media channels which accepted the ad. When I was in advertising, the story board of a TV script had to be sent to the state broadcaster, Doordarshan for approval. Sometimes, even after the video was sent for airing the ad used to be rejected for some reason. I am surprised that channels accepted these ads when news media has highlighted heinous crimes against women in the recent past.

Tone-deaf PR: when the ad was shared on Twitter and objections raised, there was no immediate apology from the manufacturer. We all know that social media can be a cesspool and brands need to watch out for controversies that can spin out of control. In WhatsApp and social media chats, the advertising & marketing fraternity assumed that the agency behind it was Triton Communications, Delhi. It took a couple of days for an individual at the agency to out out a clarification on LinkedIn that they were NOT involved in the creation of these films. There was no official clarification or a prominent message on the agency’s website (there still isn’t one).

In 2018, I had written about the poor use of social media and blogs by Indian ad agencies. Nothing much has changed in all these years. After several days of outrage, the brand put out an official communication which could have been better phrased – there was no clear apology and was vague (‘any sort of culture, as wrongly perceived by some’). Wrongly perceived? It was clear as daylight what the intent was.

Advertising as differentiator is not a sound strategy: the company behind the brand operates in categories where real, meaningful product differentiation is hard to come by. Several companies have taken on the challenger role where they aim to gain market share in large categories by creating some dissonance or product disruption. Fogg, for instance claimed that its deodorant ‘does not have gas’ – cueing that the user gets better value for money. They also relied on ‘quirky’ advertising (‘Fogg chal raha hai‘) to create some buzz and brand affinity. But when there’s nothing unique to say about the product, leaving it all to advertising does not work all the time – in fact it can cause irritation and become a laughing stock (the Fogg ‘sab ud gaya‘ ad for one, which was meant to cue long lasting perfume I guess). Over-reliance on advertising alone to create a differentiation can never guarantee success.

Business building and maturity: To me the idea (if we can call it that) and the scripting seems juvenile, immature. I am not aware of the team composition on this project but there is a mistaken belief in advertising that it’s only the youth who ‘get’ digital advertising (aimed at the millennials) and anyone above 40 is out of touch with what appeals to this audience. Such generalisations are never good for business. I was looking at the Instagram page of the brand and found it to be full of regular ‘product shot’ posts.

Building a brand, that too with no product differentiation in a cluttered market and high-decibel media environment calls for maturity which usually comes with experience. Simply portraying young people as protagonist does not guarantee a ‘connect’ with the youth. The central premise of the ad would have offended people of all age groups and made the brand ‘uncool’ – which is not a good sign to attract new audiences and purchase occasions.

Do share your views on the above.

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