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Would You Really Let Advertisers Make You Feel Miserable About Yourselves?

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By Manav Garg:

In an age where every set of six balls bowled in a high tension World Cup final is followed by Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif selling products ranging from biscuits to fairness creams, one cannot help but wonder about the impact that these advertisements have had on us in the past few decades, the contribution of this industry in shaping our economy, and the way we see it.


Advertisements have come a long way from simple posters catering to the simple minded. A cursory glance at a magazine is enough to spot the surprisingly large number of cheesy and eye-catching posters which are sprinkled with trite slogans that try to persuade the reader into buying a certain brand of cooking oil, or changing their daily shampoo, using both relevant and outrageous arguments. In a competitive economy like ours, where several producers strive to garner public support, the advertising comes out as a cog in the success of any business plan. The key lies in distinguishing their own product from that of their competitors, and this justification of the “new and improved” tags call for demiurgic advertising strategies.

As the advertisement industry grew in terms of the money that drives it, and as the audiences became increasing susceptible to their subtle and not-so-subtle coercion, any ethics that the industry may have had in the earlier years seem to have vanished into thin air. In time, there has emerged a need to draw a line somewhere — the extent to which advertisements can lie. This issue becomes very important in the context of a nation like India, where mass media has made its way into a majority of households, even while age-old prejudices and superstitions continue to leech off our intellect. In a nation where a lot of the population can easily be termed naïve, and extremely vulnerable to influence via mass media, the advertisement industry wields unimaginable power in shaping and distorting opinions.

A popular vein taken up by commercials is the life story of an otherwise talented Indian girl whose dark complexion hinders her aspirations – of marriage, or winning a competition, or being hired or whatever else. And, over a few weeks, the magic of a fairness cream makes her almost unrecognizably fairer making all her dreams come true. Bombarded by these every few minutes, a small, albeit intelligent section of society has begun to regard the industry with suspicion on two counts.

The first question raised is that of authenticity of the facts shown. Can the product give a consumer the results that they advertise, with the verbosity of the fine print protecting the perpetrators of these mass delusions from legal consequences? And when they do not, who must face the music — the company, the advertisement agency, or the viewers?

But the more important and lesser noted problem is of the kind of mindset this may be creating, especially when targeted towards the more impressionable — the children and the illiterate. Is a lighter complexion, all other factors remaining equal, going to increase the likelihood of being hired? As a nation that has traditionally looked down its nose upon the ‘less fortunate’ dark skinned, are we willing to fuel the idea that skin colour affects any aspect of the life of a young person? Rather similarly, an advertisement of a brand of biscuits containing X mineral and Y protein causing a child to excel in academics or sports or whatever else can influence young children to believe that consumption of the particular product, and not hard work and dedication, is the path to topping their class or captaining the school football team.

Here, in my opinion, the advertisement agency has to take the blame. There is an obvious responsibility on the part of the consumer to be rational even in the face of persuasive advertising, but can we extend the same responsibility to young children and to the illiterate who will buy anything so long as you sell it right? Acting as the medium via which the message of the producer is sent to the world, it becomes their ethical and moral responsibility, to ensure that creativity does not blur reality. This is an additional line of thinking that any censor/certification board has to follow before allowing advertisements to reach the people of the nation, and fulfill its own responsibility in safeguarding consumer interests.

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  1. Neha Jha

    Great that you spoke about this issue. I’ve regarded all those people who differentiate between dark and white skin as racist ones. And the stars who do so are even worse.

  2. Raj

    But these fairness and beauty products sell don’t they? Obviously they are fulfilling a need. Who is buying them? Are they being forced to buy it or are they doing it out of their own free will?
    Now coming to the point about children, sure I agree they need to be protected. But not adults.

  3. Manav Garg

    @Raj. It is wrong to say “adults” don’t need protection. By your logic, adults don’t need protection from frauds either. The responsibility of a consumer council/ civil protection system is to ensure that consumers are not being fooled.
    As far as products being sold are concerned – that is not really a part of this debate. People may buy them because they like the product, or because they are foled by the advertisements of the product. We can never really say which of the two factors contributes to what percent of the sale.

    1. Raj

      @Manav : I should have put protection as “protection” in quotes.I meant protection as the kind of patronizing overwatch we give children.In the above context it was “protection” against the advertisers, not against producers of goods and services.
      And no, I don’t think adults need “protection” from frauds, what they need is a powerful justice system that can redress their issues. I don’t believe there is a need for inefficient and corrupt Govt. established consumer councils and the license-quota raj that comes with it. If private organizations and NGOs want to investigate and bring lawsuits against producers, they should be fully empowered to do so.

    2. Manav Garg

      When you say that you want NGOs etc to be empowered and bring lawsuits etc against producers who misguide consumers, you are indirectly protecting the consumers, aren’t you?
      As far as protection is concerned, I can agree that children need to be protected more than adults; but saying that crossing a certain age barrier means that you are fit to be exposed to any kinds of opinions is wrong. Like in the case of hate speech. Any opinion which may fuel existing prejudices, like the one on skin colour, can affect adults just as much as children.

    3. Raj

      Actually it is the consumers who are protecting themselves within the judicial framework, rather than some Govt. appointed bureaucrat doing it on their behalf. Whether the consumers form a group or they bring cases as individuals, that is left to them. I’m not saying that consumers should not be offered any protection by the Govt. , but rather that it need not be in the form of regulatory bodies. Instead spend the effort in having a very strong judicial system.

      Now coming to age limit issue, I agree that it is somewhat arbitrary but I think it works well. We have a large uneducated population, yet ignorance of law isn’t an admissible case for acquittal. Regarding hate speech, I think it should be allowed since it isn’t really possible to objectively define hate speech. As an atheist most of my views on religion constitute as hate speech. As a libertarian, most of my views on communism constitute as hate speech.
      But resorting to violence in order to enforce those views shouldn’t be allowed and severely punished. After all, you can’t stop people from having such views. And if you do, that is indoctrination.

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