Why do advertisements offend us? - Hindustan Times

Why do advertisements offend us?

Oct 04, 2022 06:21 PM IST

Ads have the ability to offend people based on the values that a society holds dear. This is because, in collectivist cultures, perceived insults or simply deviations from dominating social attitudes can directly influence a person's self-esteem.

The media and entertainment industries have been experiencing criticism over questionable content since the 1960s. Advertising — a facet of the media — is no stranger to such criticism. Similar to other media content, advertising tends to inadvertently offend many. Ads being more ubiquitous in people’s lives, the likelihood that consumers outside the targeted audience may get exposed to messages that are not intended for them, is high. A famous upmarket brand of jewellery retail stores may not have intended to offend audiences in an ad about interfaith marriage. But a section of the society threatened violence against the brand, forcing it to withdraw the ad.

The Advertising Standards Council of India, a self-regulatory body for the advertising industry received 1,759 complaints against 488 ads during the period between 2019 and 2021. (Shutterstock) PREMIUM
The Advertising Standards Council of India, a self-regulatory body for the advertising industry received 1,759 complaints against 488 ads during the period between 2019 and 2021. (Shutterstock)

According to Professor Waller of the University of Technology, Sydney, Australia and co-authors in a cross-cultural study of 2005, offensive ads are ads that, by the type of product or execution, can elicit reactions of embarrassment, distaste, disgust, or outrage from a segment of the audience. Offensive ads by type of products involve the unmentionables, such as personal hygiene products, birth control pills etc. Despite their perceived unpleasantness, triggered by reasons that include ideas of “decency”, “morality”, or even fear, the public understands the difficulties in making ads for such products and the benefits of greater awareness.

Offensive manner, on the other hand, is an issue of the ad’s appeal, content, and execution — whether done “tastefully” or not. For instance, the public feels insulted due to some ads’ sexuality or nudity. Deodorants have been criticised for this. Humour, too, when used insensitively has created negative responses. A case in point was a topical ad, featuring a mask-wearing brand mascot depicted as though evacuated from Wuhan, igniting controversy. Further, the portrayal of anti-social behaviour, explicit language, excessive use of fear, and depiction of violence have been reasons why people find some ads offensive.

Recently, several ads have been accused of being offensive because they hurt religious sentiments by either directly mocking or deviating from religious and cultural values that are considered sacred. These may be well-meaning ads — ads that are inclusive and empowering for a section of society, but have received social media backlash. One can find a plausible explanation for understanding this mass disapproval by looking at how religion shapes the identity and self-esteem of Indians.

As reiterated by Prof Pamela King in her book Beyond the Self, religion allows individuals a distinct setting for identity exploration and formation. In other words, in a religious setting, an individual’s identity formation and self-esteem are heavily influenced by religious and cultural values. Thus, unfavourable attitudes toward an ad that deviates from these boundaries are an outcome of the individual’s high self-esteem and identity that anchors heavily on religion. Such individuals may be more offended by the perceived offensive execution than people whose identity and self-esteem are shaped by other aspects.

Also, in a collectivist culture, such as ours, people typically display greater susceptibility to interpersonal influences. There is a greater need to identify with others and a greater willingness to conform to the expectations of others. This collective behaviour contributes directly to the social media backlash displayed towards brands that have offensive ads. This gets further propelled because of the medium of interaction. In a world where more and more interactions and engagements among people are technology-mediated, it has given rise to a new kind of online form of activism, called slacktivism.

In 2020, more than 50% of Indians were accessing social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter. It is estimated that by 2025, over 67% of the country's population will be accessing social media networks. User-friendly social media have features that enable easy online engagements, such as “liking” or retweeting — an act that gestures social support. Combined with spatial distance and varying degrees of anonymity offered by various social media, a single post or tweet, flared with an unfavourable attitude towards an ad, has the power to go viral, instigating social conformity.

The Advertising Standards Council of India, a self-regulatory body for the advertising industry received 1,759 complaints against 488 ads during the period between 2019 and 2021. In a report released by them, they identify major patterns in ads that offend. The report offers brand insights that may help in the creative development process. Despite the modernisation of our society, the lesson for marketers is that caution can not be thrown out of the window with risky advertising dealing with ideas that are too provocative.

At the same time, let’s hope more brands stand behind progressive and inclusive ideas, while audiences develop a degree of tolerance. The media is the mirror of society, it also has the power to shape society.

Payal S Kapoor,is assistant professor (Marketing), XLRI School of Management, Delhi-NCR Campus

The views expressed are personal

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