Ethical advertising, anyone?


Recently, when a middle-aged man in the Indian state of Kerala sued superstar Mammootty over a soap advertisement claiming that the product had failed to deliver on its promise of enhancing his looks and the actor had lied with his endorsement of it, I was more than just amused. For two reasons. One, the man had taken so seriously what we have known to be true for ages – that most advertisements are bogus, filled with contrived messages intended to lure people into buying things that they really don’t need and make tall claims that the makers themselves know are hard to keep. Two, the fact that taking a perceived promise to be a commitment, he filed a case of cheating and demanded a hefty compensation, something that I would not have considered doing unless I had a genuine grievance against a company for knowingly cheating me big time and causing me serious damage.

Commercials have been encumbrances on us for a long time now and we have borne them just as we have borne many other taxes in life. Given the indispensability of advertising as a tool to influence consumer behaviour and spur buying trends, we have given it only the weightage due to them as product information cues. Beyond their role as announcements about product availability, cleverly crafted advertisements are mere amusements to us. Very rarely do we get sold on the pomposity of the copy.

Ethics, like in all other aspects of life, is a grey area in advertising too. Telling the truth to consumers might be part of noble marketing mores, but it doesn’t take much intelligence to know that the whole truth is never said. Companies devise selling techniques based on their astute understanding of consumer aspirations and desires that are limitless. Truth is often compromised in two ways – in concealing the less palatable details and in exaggerating the features of the product. Ad agencies and manufacturers that have their finger on the pulse of a spoilt-for-choice, frenzied legion of consumers know exactly what to say in their copies and visuals to grab the eyeballs and capture clientele, making deception almost legitimate in commercials.

By getting celebrities and public figures into the frame they are only adding to the allure that we all know is a mighty piece of sham. One is baffled by the huge payouts that brand ambassadors are given for flashing their faces in support of a product that they may or may not personally believe in. In fact, do those who endorse the products even know what goes into it or what the outcome of its use might be? Are they responsible for the quality of the products that they have mere contractual association with? We often see how they hurry to shirk responsibility when a product quality is called into question, and understandably so. It is foolhardy to yoke the product with the personalities that showcase it for they are merely doing a job in return for a mammoth cheque. Seldom do we have instances of people refusing to endorse products that are detrimental to public health and wellness.

Using stars to sell merchandise might be glamorous and might appeal to the hidden aspirations in the commoners, but as a discerning buyer who knows that truth and advertising are strange bedfellows, I know that the seller’s strength lies in my weaknesses, desires and complexes, and my choice should be rooted in sound judgment. The man who sued the soap company and Mammootty might either be too credulous to take the commercial at face value or he might just be conscious enough not to let the company and the commercial makers take him for granted. Either way, this incident presses a buzzer on the modern day market shenanigans. I say, we know you are playing on our sentiments and manipulating us, but let there be some morals in your manipulation, for we do see through the wool that you pull over our not-so-gullible eyes.

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