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When images sink in

The recent ban on the surrogate advertisements promoting liquor on television has opened a fresh round of debate among the talking heads. SYEDA FARIDA reports.


DRINK DEEP: Packaged water, apple juice anyone? - Photo: P.V. Sivakumar

HAVE YOU watched this image on television lately? Darts fly and voila, it hits the bull's eye! It is the slick duel at the darting board commercial of Haywards 5000. Was it about a darting kit? Or how about this? A cool dude going high at a glass of sparkling drink -the line says Aristocrat Apple Juice, one of the bolder commercials to hit the tele tube today. Advertisement as a popular medium of paid communication has drawn public ire time and again for moving away from truth andthe consumers `right to know' to providing false images. Enter the new concept of surrogate advertisement -- the advertisement of the items on the negative list, those that have downbeat social favour, such as tobacco and liquor. The masked creatives leave it to the consumer to read between the lines.

For instance, the Haywards 5000 darting kit, Mera No 1 Mc Dowell's packaged drinking water, ditto for the Kingfisher `king of good times' beer going the packaged water way, theWills Lifestyle, ITC-GTDs'(Greeting Cards Division) Expression Greetings cards and the Red & White Bravery Awards from the tobacco wing.

Brand managers call it leveraging on the existing equity of the brand, agencies define it as an exercise in brand recall of products on the negative list, while the government comes down heavily on the intriguing concept of surrogate advertising. With the anti-tobacco lobby going strong worldwide, every country has a negative list of products. One of the popular examples of surrogate advertisement from Sweden with a ban on liquor advertising has been the usage of black and white terriers for the Scottish whisky.

A parliamentary consultative committee on surrogate advertisement, headed by Additional Secretary Anil Baijal, was set up recently to deliberate on the determination of advertisements that would fall under the surrogate bracket. The committee observed that Mc Dowells and Gilbeys Green Label were the cases of surrogate advertisement since there was clear recall of the actual product, which is liquor in each case following which the I&B ministry sent show cause notices to television channels quoting the Cable Television Networks Rules Act 2001 according to which `no broadcaster is permitted to show advertisement which promotes directly or indirectly the promotion of alcohol, liquor or other intoxicants...' (Rule 7(2) of the Cable Television Networks Rules Act) and calling for a ban on such commercials. And this fresh ban on the airing of the surrogate advertisement Aristocrat Apple juice and the likes on the Indian airwaves - STAR, Sony and Zee TV networks has got the talking heads get into the debate over society versus financial figures.

Celebrity endorsements, with Shatrughan Sinha for the Bagpiper soda to the leading stars such as Akshay Kumar for the Red & White Bravery Awards, events -- Baccardi Blast which has been a pilgrimage with the hip youth, Kingfisher - Saurav and Jadeja at the popular jig for a mineral water, the famous Charminar Challenge and the other sports promotions -- Gold Flake Open and Royal Challenge, music -- Charms Spirit of Freedom Concerts and fashion -- the designer collection at the Wills Lifestyle chain of stores, the face of surrogate advertising has been ever improvising while the story boards have been reworked and gone creative.

"Event marketing has benefited sports, fashion and music. For instance music got quite a patronage with the Charms Spirit of Freedom Concerts featuring Indian classical music to the Western bands such as Rock Machine. The companies have an advertising budget maximum of which is spent on television. And when television does not carry them where do you spend that to get the visibility?" asks Satish Kocharekar, director, Livewires Advertising Pvt Ltd.

One essential function that surrogate advertising does is that of brand recall and not necessarily an exercise in increasing sales. Commodities such as tobacco and cigarettes are habit-forming with a high degree of brand loyalty and rely on word-of-mouth product information. Thus, a strong convincing logic is needed to convert the consumer to the brand over a sustained period of time, consequently the strong ad appeal. "They drink the image," says Chandrasekhar, an advertisement consultant. While it is easy for the teenagers to switch brands, the consistency and brand loyalty comes at 26-30 years, he observes.

"A brand is a sum total of the product, with the imagery and feeling. The change in maturity may lead for instance a shift from the front line Navy Cut to chief executive India Kings imagery," says Sandeep Nath, director Livewires Advertising Pvt Ltd. On one hand is the drive to break the brand loyalty and on the other the competition from the house of the global liquor majors and smuggled cigarettes, and the ban on advertisement.

"Consumers should be given a choice. In the absence of this there will be bootlegging and adulterated products lining up on the shelves," says Chandrasekhar.

Observers believe that when the license to set up the industry, manufacture and sale is given, it would be suicidal for the authorities to take a high moral ground and stop the advertisement. The tobacco and liquor industry provide a major chunk to the exchequer in the form of the Central and State excise and under other tax heads. "There is an ethical question. The government is keen that surrogate advertising does not advertise liquor; to that extent the surrogate advertising is wrong. But manufacturers have every right to sell the product," says Vishwa Mohan, vice president RK Swamy BBDO.

The industry on its own has demonstrated the maturity and sense of responsibility to promote instruments of advocacy of restraint and moderation in consumption of alcoholic products. "Society for Alcohol Related Social Policy Initiative (SASPI) is a self-evident initiative in this direction. Mc Dowell's and Seagram's have undertaken campaigns for responsible drinking," says Vijay K. Rekhi, president UB Group Spirits Division.

Some of the reasons for the ban on the advertising of the products have been to shield the young and impressionable minds from consumption. The Tobacco Institute of India (TII) is of the opinion that the freedom of commercial expression should be permitted since tobacco is a legal product and that consumption should be an informed personal choice for adults only.

"Rather than an outright ban on advertising, the government should endorse the code in operation which specify the timings when the ad should be aired," says Vijay Rekhi.

Yet another reason why liquor ads in particular face flak has been the frames being used in the commercial. `What have women got to do with the darting kit," says a consumer. Further, can anyone go on a high on an apple juice?

"You don't want to induce children to smoke and thus remove the sports sponsorship as in the case of cricket. Fair enough. But then one tends to question the censorship for other advertisements shown on the television," says Santha John, director Mindset EYW Advertising Pvt Ltd.

As regard to the debate, the liquor product has shown negative growth rates plunging to a current 2.5 million cases from a 3.7 million cases in 2000 while there has been a de-growth in cigarette volumes with the restriction on smoking in public places ever since the Tobacco Products (Prohibition of Advertisement and Regulation) Bill 2001 called for a ban on smoking in public places, and on surrogate advertising with a total ban on sponsoring of sports and cultural events by cigarette and other tobacco product companies. As a thought forward, the companies have put their eggs in different baskets `cashing in on their expertise' in hospitality, lifestyle and more.

As of now, the ban applies to the liquor segment. It is yet to be seen how soon the axe falls on the tobacco surrogates - lifestyle, retail and the works. And it would not be long when the companies producing sports kits, darting boards, sparkling water, ice cubes and greeting cards would also be known for the liquor and cigarettes they make.

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