That Thin Line Between Edgy and an Error of Judgement
The Indian arm of a global ad agency came under fire for a series of “controversial” ads they’d made, for a client that hadn’t released or paid for them, for the purpose of being entered at awards shows. The international media was outraged at the ads offensive content, the ad industry defended it as “edgy” instead, the network apologised, withdrew the campaign from the awards shows, and heads — including the chief creative officer’s — rolled.
The agency was JWT, the client was Ford. And what a difference a year makes. This May, the Indian arm of a global ad agency — O&M — made a controversial series of ads for a client that it claims approved them, but never released them. They were submitted, and subsequently withdrawn, from awards shows as well.
But the 2014 version of this drama ends a little differently. An Ogilvy & Mather Asia-Pacific spokesperson apologised for the ads, saying “The recent Kurl-On ads from our India office are contrary to the beliefs and professional standards of Ogilvy & Mather and our clients.” However, O&M India seems to be taking the view that the ads were presented — and approved in principle — by a client. Just not a client of O&M, and just not at the expense of that client. “We are not wrong in this,” Piyush Pandey, executive chairman of O&M, told ET in a statement.
So they had a client’s blessing. But they still created this campaign with the main objective of winning awards, not selling mattresses — they’d been entered for the Kyoorius A&D show, despite not being released anywhere except an ad industry website, O&M sources have said. So how does this become less of a scam than JWT’s Ford Figo, Leo Burnett’s Tata Salt, McCann’s Hanes and dozens and dozens of other “proactive” pieces of work that didn’t meet the smell test?
For one, news of the Kurl-On ads scamminess broke just before the results of the Lok Sabha elections — an advertising tree falling in a forest of political news actually doesn’t make a sound. Second, pressure from a big international source of revenue (Ford for JWT, Hanes for McCann) pushed those networks to insist on action against loose cannons that might potentially harm their brands again. The Ford Figo ads also seemed partic- ularly tone-deaf in early 2013, when a narrative of sexism and violence against women in India was prominent in public discourse. But maybe it’s just Indian advertising that’s tone deaf. Using a 14-year old victim of attempted assassination to sell your product isn’t going down well in the West — but perhaps we just don’t care as much about Malala Yousafzai’s feelings here in Pakistan’s neighbourhood. Or in a show of true Indian exceptionalism, maybe the Indian ad industry thinks it’s complimenting her by placing her in the company of Steve Jobs and Mahatma Gandhi. And perhaps the offensiveness of depicting women bound and tied, and the implications of kidnap, rape and coercion just doesn’t get across to the creatives who see only the edgy means to a trophy. This doesn’t bode well for our ability to come up with ad ideas that work across the globe. Indian agency heads — both creative and management — seem to have the same sort of tone-deafness when it comes pinpointing the real crime of the scammers. Getting caught — and especially getting caught by big-spending global clients and high-visibility media — is the crime for ad executives, not the application of time, resources and talent towards rewards for the agency’s creative department, instead of the client’s marketing objectives. Scams are always going to pose a risk for a marketer — under-supervised teams, working without the constraints of a communication strategy or campaign objectives are not weighing risks against rewards for the brands. (And the spate of scams that have sparked controversy show that agencies don’t always use the best creative judgement.) Global clients won’t let these risks be taken, Indian clients shouldn’t either. If the leaders of the Indian ad industry take a different path, that’s a lose-lose situation. It shows Indian clients that their interests are not front and centre for their agencies, and the inevitable mistakes of judgement also show them exactly what could go wrong.