Ford of India has released an ad campaign that features cartoons of scantily clad women bound and gagged in the back of Figo cars. In the ad above, a caricature of Paris Hilton is behind the wheel of a Figo with the Kardashian sisters in the back. In the ad below, Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi is seated in front of a trio of women. The ads were apparently intended to highlight the size of the car’s boot (or what we in the U.S. would call the trunk), and were a seeming attempt to play off of Hilton’s ongoing feud with the Kardashians, and Berlusconi’s alleged sexual improprieties. Ford and its advertising agency have since apologized for the campaign.
Objectifying women as sex objects is certainly not new; some examples on this website include Kate Upton selling Skull Candy headphones and how Axe ads often depict women. In this instance, Ford India’s campaign is more egregious for its coinciding with new anti-rape legislation that was passed by the Indian Parliament after the much-publicized fatal gang rape of a young paramedical student in New Delhi in December. To be fair, for Ford India this might be a case of unfortunate timing, because advertising campaigns are planned months in advance. So WPP and Ford India could not have foreseen the terrible events that took place.
However, this case seems to point out the critical need for advertising agency creative directors, art directors and copywriters (in addition to the corporate marketing and advertising professionals who are their clients) to engage in reflection before campaigns are launched. Although it sounds like something that should always be done, the reality is that amid deadlines and the challenges of coming up with ideas for ads, taking the time to reflect is not always possible.
On the other hand, this case seems to reveal a systemic lack of reflection that is particularly problematic and is unfortunately all too common. Consider the number of people who were likely responsible for this ad campaign at WPP, Ford of India’s agency. Although it can’t be independently verified, there was more than likely an account supervisor, at least one account executive and one creative director, an art director, and a copywriter. And that’s just at WPP. According to its website, at Ford India there was Vinay Piparsania, executive director, marketing, sales and service, who reported to Joginder Singh, president and managing director, Ford India. While it’s unclear if Piparsania was responsible for the advertising, Ford India’s website indicates that he “managed Ford’s brand image in India.” So at the minimum, between WPP and Ford India, there were potentially seven people (if not more) who had the chance to reflect on this campaign, its timing, its context given current events in India, and what the ads say about women generally. That such reflection apparently didn’t take place (or if it did, it was ignored or misguided), is a commentary on the state of advertising and the moral sensitivities of its practitioners.
Here are some points to consider:
- What could have WPP or Ford India have done to make this ad campaign more morally acceptable?
- In their apology, WPP indicated that the ads were not intended for publication. If they were merely satirical jokes presumably shared by agency personnel, does this make them any more acceptable?
- Would there be any problems with these ads if it were not for the circumstances in India?
Update (March 26, 2013): According to Business Insider, the ads were not intended for publication: “Ford did not approve the ads; the agency was just publishing some speculative renderings to show off its creative chops.” An ad agency showing that it has the ability to push itself creatively is something that’s done all the time. But does the fact that these were reportedly nothing more than “speculative renderings” make them any more acceptable?
Sources: slate.com, washingtonpost.com, india.ford.com, WPP, huffingtonpost.com, businessinsider.com