Layer’r, an Indian brand that makes body sprays, has come under fire for two advertisements for a product named Shot. In both, a woman is alarmed by a small group of men who discuss “taking a shot”. The implication is that she will be sexually assaulted; she is relieved to discover they are talking about a deodorant. These advertisements have since been banned. While many say they promote rape culture, my take is that they contribute to it. They normalise rape “jokes” again, after years of sensitisation through the efforts of many. The element of playing on the woman’s fear – a fear that would not be used nonchalantly in a commercial by anyone who has experienced it – is also deeply disturbing.

            There has been speculation about why the agency behind these has not yet been named (and subsequently shamed). Some allege that the industry has been purposely tight-lipped. To this I add a theory, which comes from many years of having worked in that field and having a long list of woes about it. I suggest that the creative input came from the client directly, with execution being left to the agency. Those within the agency, whose salaries depend on it, quietly and perhaps resentfully completed the assignment. Someone with a fair amount of leveraging power made a request that credits not be shared when the ads went online, as is the norm.

            This theory implies that capitalism, rather than gender insensitivity, was the organising principle behind the Layer’r Shot ads. Would an agency, or the individuals within an agency, have just been able to say No? Nope. Not usually, and especially not in this economy. Integrity is a series of constant choices and navigations, with compromises that sometimes cannot be avoided in the real world. It is different from a high horse, which is nothing but a privilege.

            This is not to let anyone off the hook about how these distasteful commercials were ideated, created and broadcast. This is only to say that not enough people along that chain of command had the will, the ethical compass and the power to stop it from happening. The advertisements are just the outcome, not the problem. They were released after mandatory approvals. These would have been given by authorities who could have, but chose not to, do things differently.

            The brand is responsible, make no mistake. In Layer’r’s apology statement announcing the withdrawal of the two advertisements, they say, “… we never intended to hurt anyone’s sentiments or feelings or outrage any women’s modesty or promote any sort of culture, as wrongly perceived by some.” This part makes it clear that the apology did not come from reflection. The archaic idea of “outraging women’s modesty” is the first clue, the decision not to name “rape culture” outright the second, and “wrongly perceived” is the clincher. The advertisements were absolutely, without a doubt, about rape – a subject the brand found fit to joke about. That was the brand’s intention, not a wrong perception by viewers.

            But really – in this heatwave, why even advertise? They were probably doing just fine sales-wise before they “shot” themselves in the foot.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express in June 2022. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.