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Mktg – Increasing tribe of marketers using ‘sex’ in ads

Preethi Chamikutty

The headline for this story does not belong to us. And no it does not belong to a condom brand, an underwear ad, a deodorant commercial, or a
bedsheet maker. It’s a headline from a print ad for the biscuit brand — Britannia Bourbon. And Britannia Bourbon is not alone.

Increasingly, brands from categories where you would not expect such expression, are talking a language that is when not screaming then, whispering sex.

Whether it’s Bourbon’s simple clever humour — the tagline for the brand is ‘indulge your dark side’ — that lets your mind wander or the sensuous ‘Aamsutra’ commercial for Mango Slice, more and more brands in India are now comfortable with the idea of using sex as the underpinning for their communication.

Unlike in the past when the moral brigade was quick to take umbrage, it seems that India and Indians no longer are afraid of the three letter word. Indeed the fact that a lot of ads with sexual connotations do not raise any hackles or for that matter doesn’t get an industry body like ASCI (Advertising Standards Council of India) breathing down the necks of marketers, indicates a coming of age of sorts.

Meena Kaushik of Quantum Market Research, who has tracked the changing Indian consumer for decades believes that advertising in India today is less repressed and is an expression of the changing Indian. “Religion and sex were the two most used archetypes in Indian advertising as both these emotions appeal to the human sub-consciousness. While earlier it was religion maybe the focus now is shifting to sex,” she says.

Santosh Desai, CEO, Future Brands who has done extensive work among Indian consumers says that advertising vocabulary tends to be reflective of what is happening in everyday life. He believes that India is more ready today than it was in the past. Says Desai, “Remember the time when the song sexy…sexy…sexy mujhe log bole had come out and people raised objections? If the song would have come out now I doubt if so many eyebrows would have been raised.”

Little wonder then that there is an increasing tribe of marketers who are willing to take the risk and make communication that is much bolder. Take for instance the brand Unwanted 72 — a birth control pill to be taken post-intercourse to prevent unwanted pregnancies. The brand depicts two young girls in which one of the girls is worried about her previous night’s activities and the other one tells her not to worry and just use Unwanted 72. The commercial ends with the two women walking armi-n-arm with two men.

Nowhere is it suggested that the women are married or are feeling guilty about the previous night. The ad is a big advancement in this category which began advertising a couple of years back with Cipla’s i-pill where the whole concept was treated with a lot more gravitas.

SOME LIKE IT HOT

While more and more brands might be going all the way with sex on their minds, both ad men and their clients who own these brands are a little cautious to admitting that they are cashing in on this trend. Take the case of Pepsico’s Slice where the ‘Aamsutra’ reference is as obvious as can be.

Homi Battiwala, business head, juice & juice drinks, PepsiCo argues that the communication has no sexual overtone at all. Says Battiwala, “It is not sexual at all. Slice is a mango drink and mango is an indulgent fruit, just like a chocolate or liqueur. The ad depicts that the pleasure in having the drink is as enjoyable as biting into the luscious fruit.”

Other brand managers are equally quick to give their ads a ‘Universal’ certificate. “Hide & Seek Milano is a flirtatious, romantic brand targeted at the young. It is an indulgent product, priced and positioned at premium,” says Shalin Desai, senior brand manager, Parle Products. He adds that the communication is something that viewers can comfortably watch with their family. In the case of Britannia Bourbon while the print ads are fairly aggressive, the TVC has chosen to take the safer route. As Shalini Degan, category director, delight & lifestyle, Britannia puts it, “The Bourbon commercial is not sexual according to me. Sexual is showing raunchy stuff, derogatory in nature and mostly objectionable. But here we have used simple clever humour.”

While these brands have played ‘safe’ in the depiction of sex in TVCs, some like Amul Macho, makers of the famous ‘toing’ ad, have proven that the Indian consumer is willing to watch much steamier stuff. The ad did raise a storm when it was first aired, but even ASCI gave it clean chit saying it wasn’t vulgar. Pushpinder Singh, chairman, Saints & Warriors , the agency that made the ad, does not pretend that sex was not part of the brief.

Says Pushpi, “By depicting a woman slipping into sexual fantasies at the mere sight of an underwear we managed to create near mythic masculinity around the man who wears it. Mind you the man was never once shown in the entire communication.”

Another brand that has used a lot of sexual overtones in its ads is Virgin Mobile. A brand that seems to be rather clearly targeting the youth, a number of its commercials have been what can be called ‘naughty’ . From the sex chat line to the one where parents are worried that their daughter might prefer women to men, the communication has been rather bold. However, Bates 141 the agency that handles the business is not willing to openly accede to the fact that sex has been used as a conscious strategy. Says Sandeep Pathak, CEO, Bates 141,

“Sex is just one of the ways of putting across a message.”

Like Virgin Mobile, McDonald’s too did not think twice before trying to cash in on the homosexuality debate that took place recently in India. When the gay community got a ruling in its favour from the courts the multinational was quick to come out with a commercial to cash in on the moment. The commercial had two burgers, with male names, preferring each other to the female, depicted by a softy. It would have been unthinkable for a brand that is so family oriented to have been able to pull something like this off, a few years back.

Prasoon Joshi, executive chairman, McCann Erickson, the agency that has created the Britannia Bourbon ads, feels that the depiction of sex is rooted in our tradition. “Kama is one of the various forms of rasas. We as consumers are genetically programmed to respond to sex,” he says.

That this has more to do with a changing society than ad agencies or marketers changing the game is well summed up by Santosh Desai, who says, “I don’t think sexual metaphor can be viewed as an evolution of Indian advertising. You could argue about more growth and exposure to stuff, so more sexual conduct in advertising is growing.” Kaushik tends to agree with this saying that brands are today moving away from the functionality and the hard hitting features of removing stains etc… to the realm of luxury, experience and emotional value attached to the brand. She says that in such a case, sexual references becomes a very powerful way to communicate.

However, cautions Kaushik, “There is certain use of sexual innuendo in the language of the youth, but Indian youth are still very grounded. If it’s a pure sexual ad, then it may not appeal to them.” It was this audience that Mc-Cann apparently tapped for into as Anil Thomas, senior creative director , McCann Erickson, Bangalore , who made the Bourbon ad explains: “The brand was advertising after a long time. The ads target today’s youth who are deceptive and have a dark side to them. They want to say something and do something else,” he says.

That, consumers are more receptive to seeing sex in advertising is confirmed by another fact. Nobody complains anymore. According to the ASCI of the 150 complaints that it got about objectionable advertising in 2008-09 , only eight ads were cited objectionable by general public, consumer groups and activists because of the sexual tone in those ads. Even among these, only four were asked to discontinue the campaign.

In the final analysis it does seem that after years of being kept in the closet, the Indian consumer has decided it is quite alright for sex to take its place under the sun.

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October 28, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized |

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