By Pavan Sukhdev
A few days into the JWT/Ford 'ScamAd' scandal (an offensive mock advertisement for the Ford 'Figo' submitted for a prestigious local industry award, showing a Silvio Berlusconi look-alike leering at three scantily clad women bound and gagged in his 'Figo' car boot) the damage control machineries of both agency and advertiser have swung into action. The incident will soon be smothered out of sight. But there will remain fundamental and disturbing questions that need to be asked and answered.
Questions such as: why has the advertising profession repeatedly exploited women – objectifying them to sell products, manipulating them to buy products? What kind of corporate culture prevailed at WPP's Indian arm, JWT, that allowed such an offensive idea to not just be created, but appreciated enough to be submitted for an industry award?
Sexual images and innuendo are so widely used in advertising that such exploitation is more norm than exception. Societal values and sensitivities, and sometimes censorship, usually keep such advertising from becoming borderline pornography. However, these constraints did not stop JWT India from designing a doubly offensive advertisement.
Firstly, it exploited a tawdry sex scandal involving Italy's ex-primeminister Berlusconi. Secondly, it did so in a country reeling from the shock of a gruesome and fatal gang-rape of a 23 year old woman which brought citizens onto the streets in protest against the apathy and incompetence of its authorities. For JWT India to select such an advert, even a mock-up, for an industry award shows a serious failure of corporate culture, an utter lack of respect for women and a total lack of sensitivity for the society in which they do business.
JWT India CEO, Colvyn Harris, morally responsible for his company's culture seemed conspicuous by his absence as the scandal unfolded. Two senior creative staff who reportedly approved and submitted the advertisements for the Abby award were sacked.
Advertising history is rife with campaigns that have manipulated women. As early as the 1920s, the American Tobacco Company's campaign for its cigarette Lucky Strike ("Reach for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet") exploited emerging ideals of women's liberation as well as anxieties about body image. The campaign's posters showed before and after images of women who had dropped prevailing taboos about smoking, achieving a statement of independence anda slimmer figure. Over four decades later, in 1968, Phillip Morris' campaign for Virginia Slims specifically targeted women ("You've come a long way, baby") in the face of impending US legislation that would soon ban all TV and radio advertising for cigarettes.
Infant formula milk was sold for decades on the medically false premise that it was "better than mothers' milk." Impoverished mothers in west and central Africa were mislead to stop breast-feeding, buy formula they could ill afford, often dilute it using dirty water and causing more babies to die. Why have advertising agencies thought it acceptable to exploit womens' emotions, ranging from body insecurities to the most visceral of emotions, that of a mother for her child?
There seem to be two very fundamental issues at the heart of this controversy that need to be recognised and dealt with.
Firstly, the idea that advertising is and should be ethically neutral. Advertising doyen David Ogilvy once said that "Advertising reflects the mores of society, but does not influence them." Really? The advertising world ought to admit that its very purpose is to influence how consumers think and feel.
Secondly, advertising is a business. Like any other business, it has a duty of care and responsibility and an implicit 'social license to operate.' Instilling the right corporate culture which respects that licence is a key responsibility for any CEO. Advertising CEOs are no exception.
In my recent book I describe how a new species of corporation – 'Corporation 2020' – is needed for tomorrow's sustainable economy. One that builds values into its business model, targets positive impacts on third-parties and society, and reduces or eliminates negative impacts. Such corporations are still too few, I could not count a single Corporation 2020 amongst the titans of today's media and advertising world. I hope that changes sooner rather than later.
First published in the Guardian Sustainable Business blog on 3rd April 2013.