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Creative licensing

The author explores whether new media is imposing too many constraints on advertising creativity

Madhukar Sabnavis 

Madhukar Sabnavis

We live in an open world. Social media provides a platform for anyone who wants to express an The mass media is all-pervasive and free to amplify any negative with implications for the reputation of both organisations and individuals. Social groups are quite active and have enough forums to promote their views through both the mass media and social media. This, in itself, is not a bad thing. It promotes accountability and transparency. However, in the field of creativity and art, it opens up a set of issues that need to be addressed.

Advertising is an interesting field. It is art, science and commerce rolled into one. Creativity (art) is at the heart of it. You need fresh and original ideas all the time in order to be noticed and remembered by consumers. At the same time, these ideas need to be relevant enough to consumers, so that the product promoted is sold (commerce). And finally, as most marketers and advertising agencies are responsible citizens, whatever is beamed out needs to be socially responsible and sensitive. Few marketers want to create controversy by hurting social sentiments. Accusations of non-originality hurt the creator's reputation and socially insensitive advertisements create unnecessary bad publicity for the brand and the marketer - the approver of the advertisement. Both are real issues in the new media environment in which we live today.

Let me tackle originality first. The line between copying, building and being inspired by an idea from the past is very thin. At one level, there are very few original ideas; much of what is being created today has been thought of and done before by someone else in some form, some time, somewhere. New media provides the platform to find and weigh similarities, and amplify these personal observations; views become public and can be damaging. While this cannot be stopped, it's time for creators and approvers to view this a little more cautiously and not let social or mass-media statements become judgements.

The social sensitivity bit is more complicated and has larger - not necessarily more serious, as individual creative reputations are also important - brand implications.

For the sake of illustration, let me go back to three advertising stories done a few years ago.

  • A retired father wishes he had a son. The daughter overhears and decides to become a son. She becomes an airhostess and takes her father out for a cup of tea to a five-star restaurant - her parents gush with pride. Of course, the secret behind her getting the airline job is a fairness cream, which has transformed her darker skin into fairer and helped her pass the job interview.

  • A pair of woman's panties flies off a clothes line, to a romantic tune, and lands next to a male brand of underwear on a clothes line on a lower floor. The commercial ends with the male brand's name and the line: "Makes a big impression."
  • A hero film star (emphasis mine) jumps from his building balcony and does a series of stunts to get to a truck carrying his favourite soft drink. He gets one and returns to his seat at home to substitute his finished bottle, much to his girlfriend's dismay.

All three stories are average-to-interesting, depending on who the receiver is. They were all made into commercials, so some stakeholders found them good enough to execute. Yet, when they were finally made, all three had some stakeholders upset or uncomfortable. The first commercial raised questions on gender equality, even though the brand ultimately proposed a solution to the father's concerns. It had to be taken off the air amidst debates surrounding the promotion of fairness creams and making darker skin feel inadequate. The second advertisement had sexual connotations and had to be taken off the air because some groups felt it was in bad taste. The third commercial raised questions as to whether it was encouraging little kids to do daring stunts at home - despite the fact that the same kids see the same hero doing stunts movie after movie.

Given that marketers and advertisers spend much resources - time and money - to make their campaigns, the question is, who judges what's responsible and what's not? What is crossing the line of freedom into irresponsibility and what is within it? One person's freedom and creativity could end up being socially insensitive to another.

Very often consumer research (science) cannot catch such nuances. The first of the three stories was made by a responsible multinational, and it must certainly have been consumer-tested before release. Most advertising is not created by an isolated individual, but often by a bunch of people involved. Clearly, the makers of the two other stories found nothing negative in what they created. The second one must have been seen as charming, and the third clearly exciting.

Advertising creation is happening every day in different places under tight deadlines. And situations come up all the time. Kids throwing ink on each other in school: does this promote bad behaviour in school or is it just a reflection of a common prank played by kids every day? When a child complains about having to drink milk and actually asks, "Am I a cat, to be fed milk?", is it encouraging insolence among children, or is it just a charming way of showing kids' distaste for milk? A cricket star says, "ladki patane ke do tareeke" (there are two ways to get a girl): is it demeaning language or just target-audience-speak? These are really subjective calls, and creativity is about exercising what sounds right and fresh. Scrutinising every detail oversensitively and reacting strongly could be harsh and restrict creative freedom.

Advertising does have self-regulation, which attempts to monitor anything that goes overboard. However, the sword of Damocles in today's context will hold back marketers from experimenting, and that is where there needs to be more openness and sensitivity among the social guardians of society - media, social groups and social media commentators - to allow advertising creativity to thrive.

As we move forward, practitioners of creativity need to be extra-cautious to the prevalence of such media; this is a practical solution. However, simultaneously, society - whether activist groups, the mass media, social media commentators or advertising judges - needs to give creative minds licence by being more sensitive, forgiving and even accepting of coincidences that are possible in the creative world. Something worth thinking about.

The writer is vice chairman of Ogilvy India.

These views are his own.

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First Published: Fri, May 03 2013. 22:48 IST