Saturday, May 15, 2010

Taboo in Advertising

Ram Sevak | IIM B

There are explicit advertising codes in some countries such as the UK and Portugal laying down the proper standard of decency in advertisements. These codes vary in their specificity of controlling the potential offence and hence confound marketers working among diverse communities. The word Taboo here connotes the prohibition of an action or the use of an object based on ritualistic distinctions of them either as being sacred or as being dangerous, unclean, and accursed or more specifically in case of Indian cultural construct - socially embarrassing.

With respect to analyzing the use of taboos in advertising by the firms, we encounter two types of situation. First type arises when the handling of taboo object or situation in advertising becomes unavoidable by the very nature of product itself for example personal hygiene products, birth control related products, drugs catering towards terminally ill patients etc. In such cases, the goal of advertising strategy is to ameliorate the degree of taboo’ness in the minds of customers from the advertisement while retaining its impact as a promotional tool for the product.

The other type is when the taboo subject used in advertising is a tool to generate interest or curiosity (shock factor) from the targeted audience although the product category might not necessitate the use of such tactic per se e.g. recently banned ad of a leading male undergarment bordered on sexual innuendo. The caveat here is to carefully navigate the fine line between law and social norms vs. certain degree of provocativeness in the advertisement – as any mismatch between the two might result in substantial loss to firm’s reputation and a dent in its public image.

Barring a few instances, where taboos fall in the realm of offence e.g. extremely foul language; the biggest difficulty in analyzing taboo subjects in advertising is neutralizing moral valuation attached to a pollution factor. In other words, depending on the cultural, social, religious, traditional and lingual characteristics of an individual, degree of discomfort caused by a taboo advertisement will vary. Thus it becomes increasingly difficult for marketers to anticipate and measure the response from the target population towards an advertisement exposure.

Taboo use in advertising can be used as a strategy for smaller brands to compete against rivals with bigger advertisement budgets. The important thing to keep in mind here is that the objective of the advertisement campaign by the smaller firm is to provoke rather than persuade e.g. the row over SCA Hygiene's latest Bodyform campaign dealing with bodily functions.

Online marketing including social media advertising has recently emerged as one of the most talked about topic in the marketing discipline. This technique has been used for marketing by pharmaceutical companies addressing taboo topics. Besides giving a greater degree of anonymity between the advertiser and the prospective consumer as compared to other forms of marketing, online marketing is a balancing act between globalization and localization. While global marketing aims at utilizing economies of scale and local marketing at context-sensitive communication – both these factors, in the context of online marketing, have positive synergies between themselves and thus leading to each other’s success.

An interesting observation is made in case of advertisements dealing with dirt and bacteria. The products, as illustrated in a majority of their advertisement on television, are really not dealing with the effectiveness of the product per se in cleaning but the fear of unknown – bug or pollutant – in the consumer’s mind.

This example illustrates a useful tool in the hands of advertising agencies for socially uncomfortable messaging – focus on key psychographic aspects which can be controlled and stimulated more easily.

Another aspect in taboo advertising deals with selling products which people wish they never needed e.g. drugs treating terminal diseases or products with harmful side effects. The advertising focus here should be improving the image of the product in the minds of the customers or alternatively making them feel less uncomfortable about their conditions. Roping in celebrities in advertisement is a well-established practice. However marketing managers would be advised to be cautious while following the route of celebrity endorsement without considering the potential fallout of such policies e.g. phenomena called celebrity trap in which it becomes increasingly difficult for a brand to free itself from the looming shadow of celebrity.

Managers should also strive towards increasing the market size of the product by selling it to non-suffering customers who can potentially benefit from the product usage. From a long-term perspective, the aim of advertising in such product categories should be overcoming the psychological barrier to purchase decision or removing the social stigma attached to the underlying product usage. Government of India supported BindaasBol campaign launched in September 2006 in the Northern region is a good example towards overcoming social and cultural stigma related to purchase of a condom.

Matching the medium of communication with the appropriateness of the message is also essential – form and content of advertising for a product in the Times of India is different from placing an ad in Facebook for the same product.

Lastly, if the marketer has decided to go with use of taboos as a strategy in his advertisements, he should be cognizant of diverse and sometimes even surprising taboo subjects across cultures and countries. Although some of the taboo subjects are fairly obvious e.g. certain bodily parts in India and pet-food advertisements in food-scarce Lithuania, other taboos can be very bewildering - women in hospital in Poland and red-haired women in France!

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