From 6am to 10pm, Indian televisions will no longer broadcast condom ads. They will, of course, promote everything from body dysphoria to consumerist greed during those hours, but just not safer sex. The ban comes because the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting finds these commercials “indecent” – especially for children. To be fair, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights has welcomed this move. It cannot be easy to explain pleasure, sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy to a kid on the basis of a TV spot.
Can condom commercials be made differently, without the use of titillating images? Of course. So can commercials for deodorants, watches and mango juice. But this partial ban focuses only on one highly necessary health product. While the imagery of the ads in question can change, the importance of promoting it cannot be underestimated. It’s a mistake to consider the product itself provocative. It’s practical. And the latest study shows that there are 1.6 crore abortions in India annually, a more serious procedure by far than rolling on some latex.
Children will see age-inappropriate things on TV anyway, and will have all kinds of emotions and questions about them. Normalising contraceptive usage only empowers them for when they get older.
Is sex, or even sexual innuendo, the worst thing that a child can see in an advertisement? Here’s a small selection of memorable TV and Youtube commercials which ran in the last few years which are ethically questionable. Havell had an ad for fans which suggested that a girl rejecting the caste reservation quota to which she has a right was a sign of national progress, a highly dangerous insinuation which a child viewer could pass on to the dynamics and conversations in their classroom. Cadbury Bournville had a white man passing judgement on Ghanaian cocoa beans, and a group of deferential Ghanaian men – how that doesn’t look and sound like slavery or colonialism to some people, I’ll never understand. And of course, we’re deluged with advertising for fairness products. They used to call it “whitening”. Now, they think “brightening” is a softer way to deal the prejudiced blow.
Advertisements that promote gender inequality are a category unto themselves. We already know that women’s bodies have openly been used for decades to sell everything from cars to shampoo. The flagrant objectification of those “vintage” ads now adapts understated tones. Sexual objectification isn’t the only form of misogyny, which remains rampant. We saw it recently in Surf Excel Matic’s “As Good As Mom’s Hand Wash” (a glorification of regressive gender roles, which competitor Ariel one-upped with #SharetheLoad, which is nice and all but don’t be fooled by the capitalism), a Santoor ad called “Mummy You Rock” in which people are shocked that a young musician is also a mother (because mothers cannot possibly belong to themselves, too, and be attractive or talented to boot) and when Amazon India plugged the stereotype that women are compulsive spendthrifts in #WhenAWomanShops.
Children watch and internalise the messages in such advertising too – and grow up to be racist, casteist, sexist prudes. That’s surely a lot worse than a child who knows what a condom is.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 14th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.