Beyond Berlo’s Boot Space

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The recent controversial Ford ads raise questions about industry ethics and the validity of scam ads

Some earthquakes go unnoticed on the Richter scale.

A few weeks ago, one such quake rocked the Indian advertising industry. At the epicentre were three ads for Ford Figo featuring former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, socialite Paris Hilton and Formula 1 legend Michael Schumacher, with their ‘worries’ gagged and bound and dumped in the boot. ‘Leave your worries behind. With Figo’s extra-large boot,’ the tagline read.

These ads were created by JWT, one of India’s largest agencies, for Ford, one of its biggest clients globally, and were submitted as entries for awards at Goafest, an ad festival where agencies show off their most creative work and vie for the title of ‘Creative Agency of The Year’.

If these ads were entered at Goafest, it likely means that they had the ‘blessings of the client’—industry jargon for a signed letter from the client.

That’s standard operating procedure, largely, when it comes to agencies and awards: you create an ad, develop it, show it to your client, seek the client’s approval, release the ad once in some obscure publication, and then enter it for awards. Having been submitted at Goafest, the Figo ads went online. They happened to annoy everyone from the Kardashians to Berlusconi’s supporters (at last count, there were none, but never mind that). Along the way, they attracted a lot of social media hatred.

The earth under the Indian advertising industry shook. The ads caused tremors felt as far away as Ford’s US offices. The aftermath was devastating.

In an effort to appease Ford and retain its business, JWT sacked its Chief Creative Officer Bobby Pawar and Creative Director Vijay Simha Vellanki.

The international opinion on the ads has largely centred around the word ‘distasteful’. And while Pawar himself chooses not to comment on the issue just yet, fearing “legal implications if I even open my mouth”, veterans within the Indian ad industry defend him.

“Tasteful or otherwise is a subjective matter,” says Sumanto Chattopadhyay, executive creative director, Ogilvy, South Asia, “It depends on the cultural, social and political context the brand operates in.” Arunava Sengupta, founder and director of Scarecrow Communications, is categorical. “I don’t think these ads were in bad taste at all,” he says. “Advertising, after all, is an exaggeration of what is happening around us, and this is just one way to execute an idea. Bollywood dishes out far worse in the form of item numbers. Scantily clad chicks getting felt up by men with whisky bottles in their hand. They are far worse in taste and yet none of us bats an eyelid. Then how come our moral conscience suddenly wakes up upon seeing these ads? This is incomprehensible.”

“Bobby’s firing is unfair,” he adds. “If at all, the entire senior management at JWT should resign. Or no one.” Jump across the fence to the client’s side of the story, and the tune changes, like a quick switch between two radio stations.

“A car which has never showcased boot space as a virtue suddenly seems to have grown only to accommodate awards,” says Salil Vaidya, chief marketing officer at ASK Wealth Management Services. It’s difficult to miss the sarcasm in his voice. “And what makes it worse,” he continues, “is the fact that they use controversy in order to [win]. This is the kind of work that’s extremely damaging, not just for the product, but for the brand at large.”

Opinions vary and are subjective. But the debate within the advertising industry is not entirely about how distasteful these ads were. There has been a worse allegation against them. These ads were that unspeakable four-letter word, the AIDS of advertising. They were a s-c-a-m. The louder cry within the walls of ad agencies, and on the Facebook walls of its personnel, was a unanimous chant: ‘Scam, scam, scam.’

So, what exactly is a ‘scam’ ad?

Simply put: a scam ad is one created by an agency in order to win awards at advertising festivals like Goafest (India), Cannes (France) and The One Show (USA), among others.

These ads are not made in response to a client’s marketing problem, but because agencies want to be known as the most-awarded in the country. In an effort to get there, agencies are known to hire top-notch creative leaders and put undue pressure on them to perform and produce ads by the dozen. Which they do, but these ads don’t appear in mainline newspapers or on TV channels. They just see a nominal release in one publication, say, The Free Press Journal, which has historically dedicated the month of December to such releases. If ad agency insiders are to be believed, the number of such ads in India is very high.

“If you look at international award-winning work from India,” says Chattopadhyay, “a great proportion of it seems to be scam advertising, in comparison to other countries. Singapore used to be the world’s scam capital. That honour seems to have been passed to India.”

Sengupta agrees. “I think it’s only in India that scam [advertising] still exists in a big way,” he says. “Countries that pioneered it have moved on.”

At this point, let’s dissect the word .

“Implicit in the word ‘scam’ is the notion that someone has been swindled. I wonder who has been cheated by this so-called scam in advertising,” says Shiv Sethuraman, CEO, TBWA India. “The agency that willingly did it? The client who gave it approval? Or the jury that chose to award it?”

Answers to that question reveal something about the ‘leper of advertising’, also known as ‘the scammer’—considered the scum of the business, the guy who creates advertising for his own glory and no one else’s.

“The scammer is a unique animal,” says Sameer Desai, founder of Acid Brand Communications and a regular jury member at Goafest. “The client doesn’t benefit from his work, the consumer doesn’t benefit from it; in fact, the consumer doesn’t even see it. The only entity who benefits from it is he himself, and he uses that award to get the next big jump in his career. It’s his passport to an increment and a promotion, or a new job maybe.”

“A scam is an easy way out, a short cut to success for a creative person,” says Sengupta of Scarecrow. “If given a chance, even the agency that created it will not put its money behind it to work in the marketplace.”

Shalini Rawla, a market research analyst who has spent 12 years of her life working at advertising agencies like Ambience Publicis, Lowe and Contract, sums it up by saying: “Scam ads are the work of a lazy creative person, a person who has no ability to produce clutter-breaking work within a brand’s guidelines. It may be great, but I can neither applaud, nor respect that.”

So, that’s the verdict. Scam is a four-letter word. Now let’s replace it with one that is not a four-letter word, literally or otherwise. Let’s use the word ‘proactive’.

‘Proactive’ is basically the same thing—an agency thinks of an idea without a brief from a client. But this word changes the tune of the argument, like another abrupt switch to yet another radio station. Maybe from Western classical to hip-hop to Tango.

“Not all proactive work is scam,” says Sheetal Choksi, director at Consult Sams Pvt Ltd. Choksi is the quintessential ‘client’, and has been instrumental in building one of India’s best known brands: Shoppers’ Stop. “I’ve seen some very successful ideas get launched because of ‘proactive’ ideas in my career. Such proactive work is always welcome.”

At some level, Sethuraman’s views seem to resonate with Choksi’s, despite one being an agency person’s view and the other a client’s. “I have always been enriched and empowered by ‘proactive’ work,” he says. “In the best instances, it has the power to make you feel much like you would in the presence of a great poem or work of art. It makes you feel that there is a higher purpose to what you are doing, and I love that feeling.”

Proactivity is not of recent provenance in the advertising industry. It has been around ever since one of its pioneering luminaries can remember. Legendary advertising professional Luke Sullivan, who, among other achievements, has penned the book Hey Whipple, Squeeze This—one that every creative person in every creative department in the world has cut his teeth on—admits, ‘All this has been going on at least since I’ve started in the business and that was way back in 1979. I did this very thing back when I was a much younger writer. I couldn’t wait to show the ad world my word-slinging prowess. And so I jumped at pretty much every opportunity to do work for any enterprise that wanted to do cool stuff.’

“Proactive ads have always existed,” Sethuraman says. “They’ve existed not because of awards but because of the very nature of the creative animal. A creative guy wants, every now and then, to dazzle himself and the rest of the world with his wizardry. A fashion designer does not pretend his designs have flown off the shelves when he showcases his collection. How is this any different?”

Proactive thinking has, at times, evenled to ad campaigns that the client has chosen to put on air after seeing the finished work.

Ashit Ghelani, founder and producer at Boot Polissh Films, has experienced this first hand. “Recently,” he says, “we got a script from an agency that was ‘proactive’, which means the client hadn’t seen the script, and the agency wanted us to produce it and then show it to the client. Exclusively for awards, of course. We, as a production house, loved the script and produced it free of cost—only because we thought the idea was lovely and worth producing. Eventually, after seeing the finished film, the client loved it so much that he put it on air, despite its being unplanned. So who is to say that proactive thinking is a bad thing?”

In the battle between ‘scam’ and ‘proactive’, the latter wins hands down.

A ‘proactive’ ad is something that an agency thinks of, well, proactively, without a brief from the client. The agency develops it and goes forth with it on the client’s approval. And that seems to be a good thing from the point of view of every collaborator—be it creative folk, account managers, the client or the eventual developer, the filmmaker.

The Ford Figo ads were ‘proactive’. They were official entries at India’s leading advertising awards festival, and so they were legitimate, and one may reasonably assume that they had what ad insiders call the ‘client’s blessings’. And yet, they caused a tremor that led to the firing of a top-notch creative professional, leaving more than just a few insecure creative professionals behind. ‘Who knows who could be the next scapegoat at the creative altar after Bobby Pawar?’ every creative bloke in the country must be wondering right now.

Will this change anything?

Will this episode change the Indian advertising industry’s approach towards its clients and brands? Will it, in any way, make agencies less award-crazy? Will it discourage agencies from being constructively proactive (which, Figo or no Figo, is often what it is)? Will it punish or abolish the destructive scam? Will quality control become more important than a Gold Lion at Cannes? Desai answers these questions with a casual yet telling response. “This is just a controversy, not a revolution,” he says with a chuckle. “It will not change anything.”

And if that turns out to be true, who is scamming whom in this business? Or should we say circus?

The author is an advertising writer and filmmaker with 16 years’ experience in the business. He works for the Mumbai-based agency Acid Brand Communications. He also wishes to declare that the views expressed by the respondents quoted in the article above are personal and not those of the organisations or networks they work for or represent