Why all deodrant ads commodify women and diamond ads don’t

diamirza-wildstone

Vivek Kaul

This is another column which is different from the usual stuff that I write. Over the last few years I have been observing a few advertisements that tend to commodify women and few which don’t and have been wanting to understand, why things are the way they are. This column is a result of that.
Take the case of deodorant advertisements. These ads are like item numbers in films. They titillate and present women as one dimensional objects of sexual desire.
The only difference is that at the end of the deodorant advertisement the hero usually gets the girl because he has had the foresight to spray the deodorant on his well built body. The woman gets attracted by the smell of the deodorant and is hooked on to the guy.
One such advertisement was that of Wild Stone deodorant which featured the out of work but still stunningly beautiful actress Dia Mirza. As the formula for such advertisements goes, Mirza is seen getting attracted to a well sculpted male model who has applied the Wild Stone deodorant.
In real life it would be foolish to think that beautiful women are attracted to men on the basis of just a brand of a deodorant. But this ad, like most deodorant ads, is not targeted towards women. It is targeted towards men.
As brand guru Martin Lindstrom writes in Brandwashed –Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy: “in general women tend to more easily persuaded by ads that are more romantic than sexual… Men, on the other hand, respond to sexual innuendo and women in bikini.”
In fact when it comes to deodorants a lot of research and thinking has been done to arrive at these clichéd advertisements. As Lindstrom told me in an interview when I asked him what the ultimate male fantasy was: “A man sitting in a hot-top-spa with two naked ladies on each side – popping a bottle of Champagne. Unilever, the manufacturer of AXE discovered this very observation based on thousands of interviews and observations of men worldwide – realising that this very fantasy indeed seems global – and today explaining why AXE uses this very imagination as the foundation for all their ads.”
And that explains to a large extent why all deodorant advertisements are one and the same. Geoffrey Miller, a professor of evolutionary psychology has an explanation for this in his book Spent –Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behaviour. He writes “Biology offers an answer. Humans evolved in small social groups in which image and status were all-important, not only for survival but for attracting mates, impressing friends, and rearing children. Many products are products are signals first and material objects later.”
Deodorant ads work on this evolutionary trait and tend to project the smell of a deodorant as a sexual mating signal from the male to the female. This is primarily because biologically the best strategy for a man is to be promiscuous and try and attract as many women as possible. “The more women with which he mates, the greater number of children containing his genes are possible… Thus, a man’s biological criteria can be simple: 1) she must be healthy; 2) she must be young; 3) she must be receptive; 4) and she must be impregnable,” writes Richard F. Taflinger in You and Me, Babe: Sex and Advertising.
While a man may want to be promiscuous it may not be always possible for him to do so because of societal pressures. But even with that a subconscious need may still remain. And that is what marketers who commission sexually loaded ads, play on. A great example is the chocolate man ad of Axe Body Spray, which had multiple women swooning over one man.
The other product that has taken on to sexually loaded advertising is the male ganji. A typical ad shows a guy wearing a ganji (these days chances are that this could be a filmstar) always getting the girl in the end. What is true about ganjis is also true about the male underwear.
An ad that went overboard with sexual innuendo was the Amul Macho underwear ye to bada toing hai. The ad showed a woman, who was probably newly married, going to the village river to wash her husband’s underwear. And in the process the other women around her were shown to get sexually turned on. The ad again played on the promiscuous nature of men even though it did not feature a man and ended up demeaning women through its one dimensional projection.
In fact automobiles are another area which tend to get sexually loaded advertising. This phenomenon is still to take off in India where most car advertising tends to concentrate on the family and if not the family, then the double income no kid couple.
But in the developed countries this mode of advertising has been around for a while. Lindstrom points to a Volvo ad showing a silhouette of a Volvo’s driver’s seat with its parking brake extending in the air – precisely like an erect penis – over the tagline, “We’re just as excited as you are”.
One thing that is common to this track of advertising is that they tend to project women as bimbos. As Madhukar Sabnavis of Ogilvy & Mather puts it “Do Axe commercials project women as bimbos, or are they a light-hearted take on the man-woman relationship? I would prefer to think it’s the latter…The judgement is subjective and qualitative, and so it cannot be cast in stone.” While the advertising industry might say that they are not projecting a stereotype, the evidence is clearly to the contrary.
But what about women? Why don’t they take to direct sexual advertising and tend to be swayed more by romantic advertising?
A few years back Tanishq released an advertisement featuring Adil Hussain and Tisca Chopra which had all the settings of romance—a couple in a restaurant with the candles lit, saxophone playing in the background and a man getting ready to gift a solitaire to his wife of ten years.
So why do these kind of advertisements work well with women? As Taflinger puts it “Women…have a far greater physical, physiological and temporal stake in producing children. This means she must be highly selective in her choice of men if she wishes to produce the highest quality children in her reproductive lifetime. If she selects just any man that comes along, she could waste all that time and energy that pregnancy and rearing require on a possibly weak or nonviable child. She thus aims her biological criteria at getting the best possible man. The sex act, and his participation, being so brief, doesn’t have to be of any particular interest to her. What is important is the quality of genes he brings and the help, if any, she will have while carrying, bearing and rearing the children.”
Now that does not mean that the sexual desires are strong only in men. As Taflinger explains “She also has sexual desires as strong as a man’s. However, she will often subordinate that desire. That is, she may desire a physically attractive man, but she will not actually have sex with him until he has satisfied more than physical criteria.”
Hence, women are more careful than men when it comes to entire ritual of mating. But that does not mean they don’t send out sexual signals. They do that, but not in a way as direct as men. The entire cosmetics business is built on this insight. As Miller puts it: “The whole cosmetics business is focused on helping women appear younger, more fertile, healthier, and thus better able to bear offspring. The evolutionary background of cosmetics is that in most primate species,sexual selection focuses very heavily on facial appearance. In assessing women’s ages, men apparently evolved to pay close attention to facial and bodily cues of being in the young-adult phase of peak fertility. So women could evolve to fake their fertility all the way from around age twelve to around age twelve to around age sixty.”
And how cosmetics help? “One way of faking fertility across a broader age range is to apply cosmetics that amplify facial fertility cues that peak in young adulthood, such as plump lips, large eyes, prominent cheekbones, smooth and radiant complexion, thick and glossy head hair, and minimal facial hair,’ writes Miller.
This explains why you will see more deodorant ads stereotyping women in the time to come. But you will never see a diamond ad doing the same.

The column originally appeared on The Daily Reckoning on Mar 11, 2015

Fear is the key: What Sushma, Rajiv and i-pill have in common

ipill

Vivek Kaul

It’s around midnight as I write this and I am just back from a late dinner with a friend. Before we started to have dinner my friend insisted that I use a hand sanitiser. While I have nothing against people pretending to be clean all the time, but the smell of a hand sanitiser really puts me off and can even make me sneeze.
Given that I refused to use it.
“How can you not use a hand sanitiser before eating?” she asked.
“Well I have washed my hands,” I replied.
“But that’s not enough,” she insisted.
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because a hand sanitiser kills all the germs.”
“What germs?” I asked, ripping into the tandoori chicken.
“Ah. End of conversation. Guess cleanliness isn’t really your thing!” she exclaimed at my ingratitude.
The idea of using hand sanitisers has caught on(especially with women) after the recent global swine flue scare. But does it really help? As brand management expert Martin Lindstrom writes in his latest book Brandwashed – Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy “Neither swine flu nor SARS can be prevented by the use of antibacterial cleansing gels. Both viruses are spread via tiny droplets in the air that are sneezed or coughed by people who are already infected. ”
In fact as Lindstrom told me in an interview “What’s ironic is that none of those products…actually do any better job than soap and water.”
That being the case why are women so in love with hand sanitisers? As Lindstrom puts it in Brandwashed “The idea of an unseen, potentially fatal contagion has driven us into nothing short of an antibacterial mania.”
And companies making hand sanitisers have simply captured this mania as a profitable money making proposition. As Lindstrom told me “The companies have done a extraordinary job in building their brands on the back of the fear created by those global viruses – indicating that we’ll be safe using these brands…The ironic side of the story however is that the life expectancy in Japan is decreasing for the first time in history – why – because the country simply has become too clean – the Japanese have weakened their immune system as a result of overuse of hand sanitising products.”
What this little story tells us is that fear of something happening (or not happening for that matter) is a great selling strategy and you can’t argue with a woman who has made up her mind.
As Lindstrom put it “we’re all hardwired to be seduced by fear – fear is the number one soft button in our brain – it is a survival instinct. Fear is used by most insurance companies and even Colgate who claimed in one ad that they could remove the risk of cancer by the usage of their toothpaste,” said Lindstrom.
The fact that fear is a great selling strategy makes companies build it directly into their advertisements. The advertisement of i-pill, an emergency contraceptive pill, shows a mother telling her daughter “Kyun risk le rahi hai?” when the daughter calls and hints that she has had unprotected sex.
Or take the case of Saffola oil which has run a highly successful campaign over the years on the fear of a heart attack. It used to run an advertisement for years showing a man being wheeled into the operation theatre, with the sound of the ambulance siren in the background (Let me concede I also use Saffola oil for cooking).Fair and Lovely, which claims to be a skin lightening cream, has run on a plank of the fear of rejection for a “dark” girl. This despite protests from several quarters. The advertisement of the health drink Complan is built around the fear that those not having Complan will not grow as tall as those having it.
Almost every insurance company uses fear as a selling strategy. This can vary from the fear of death, to the fear of not having enough money to meet hospital bills, to the fear of not having enough money for the son’s or the daughter’s education or not having enough money for the daughter’s wedding and so on.

As Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason university in the US, writes in the book, Discover your Inner Economist “Often , buying insurance is about investing in a story about who we are and what we care about; insurance salesmen have long recognised this fact and built their pitches around it.”
Having given these examples, let me concede that some of these advertisements do push consumers towards buying the right product. But most of these advertisements are misleading. As the Business Standard recently reported “Whether it’s Complan or Horlicks, they claim to make a child taller and smarter. But their promises are not based on any scientific data….Abu Hasem Khan Choudhury, minister of state for health and family welfare informed the Lok Sabha in a written reply on November 30 that the food regulator had begun prosecution proceedings against manufacturers of 19 leading brands and issued show cause notices to 19 others for making false claims regarding the nutritional value of the product in advertising and on the label.”
As the story further pointed out “ For instance, Complan, a leading drink brand, claims it makes children grow twice faster. Horlicks promises to make children “taller, stronger and sharper”. Kellogg’s Special K claims people who eat low fat food in their breakfast tend to be thinner than those who do not, without providing any scientific study to back this claim. Products like Saffola oil, Rajdhani Besan and Britannia Vita Marie biscuits have been booked for making false claims of being “heart-friendly” and “reducing cholesterol”.”
All these products play on the fears and insecurities of consumers. If my kid doesn’t drink Complan/Horlicks he won’t grow tall. If I don’t eat Kellog’s Special K I will become fat. And if I don’t have Saffola oil I will have a heart attack.
Lindstrom summarises this phenomenon very well in a paragraph in his book Buyology – How Everything We Believe About Why We Buy is Wrong “That if we don’t buy their product, we”ll somehow be missing out. That we’ll become more and more imperfect; that we’ll have dandruff or bad skin or dull hair or be overweight or have a lousy fashion sense. That if we don’t use this shaving cream, women will walk by us without a glance…That if we don’t wear this brand of lingerie no man will ever marry us.”
Politicians are looking to do exactly the same thing when they practise the politics of fear. The recent debate on FDI in big retail had Sushma Swaraj saying things like “Will Wal-Mart care about the poor farmer’s sister’s wedding? Will Wal-Mart send his children to school? Will Wal-Mart notice his tears and hunger?”
She also said that “The remaining 70 percent of the goods sold in these supermarkets will be procured from China. Factories will open in China, traders will prosper in China while darkness will befall 12 crore people in India.” This is scaremongering of a kind similar to that indulged in by companies to sell their products.
Arun Jaitley, the leader of opposition in the Rajya Sabha, also indulged in the same when he said that “India will become a nation of sales boys and girls.”
And before I am labelled to be a Congi by the internet Hindus let me clarify that politicians from across the political spectrum have practised this strategy at various points of time.
“When a big tree falls, the ground shakes,” said Rajiv Gandh after his mother Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards.
A section of the Indian National Congress (back then known as the Congress-I) whipped up mass frenzy against the Sikhs after the assassination. In the pogrom that followed Sikhs were killed all across northern and eastern India. And the Congress Party got 415 seats out of the 540 seats in the Lok Sabha, a feat not achieved even by Jawaharlal Nehru, the biggest leader that the party has ever had.
Kanshi Ram, had formed the the Dalit Soshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti or DS4, before forming the BSP. The rallying cry for DS4 was”Thakur, Brahmin, Bania Chhod, Baki Sab Hain DS4.” This worked so well that when Ram decided to form the BSP he came up with a similar sounding but a more subtle slogan. “Tilak Tarazu aur Talwaar, inko maaro joote chaar.
The late Bal Thackeray was a master of this craft first putting fear of Tamils in the minds of the Marathi Manoos and then Muslims as times changed. His nephew Raj, who left to form his own party the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, took this strategy further and has put the fear of Bhaiyyas and Biharis in the minds of the Marathi Manoos.
Varun Gandhi made front page headlines when in a speech he said “Ye panja nahi hai, ye kamal ka haath hai. Ye kat** ke galey ko kaat dega chunaav ke baad.” Then there are also examples of parties like DMK, which have been built on creating the fear of the loss of culture and language.
When politicians try to create fear in the minds of the citizens their aim is similar to that of companies trying to create fear in the minds of consumers. Fear “is what our brains remember…”writes Martin Lindstrom in his book Buyology. Fear creates what Lindstrom calls “somatic markers” or brain shortcuts that link the brand sold to what needs to be done to take care of the fear: “Want you kid to grow tall? Get him to drink Complan!”
“Want a healthy life without a heart attack? Eat Saffola oil.”
Or in a political context “Don’t want the Chinese take away Indian jobs or sell goods in India? Vote for the Bhartiya Janata Party.”
“Want freedom from the oppression of upper castes? Vote for the Bahujan Samaj Party.”
“Want to revenge the assassination of Indira Gandhi? Kill Sikhs but don’t forget to vote for the Congress.”
While it is not as simple as that, but that is what it essentially means. Fear also gives rise to anxieties and insecurities of people and helps politicians come up with a war cry and make themselves easily heard. As Bill Bonner and Lila Rajiva write in Mobs, Messiahs and Markets “Men are ready to die for the group and kill anyone who resists its will.”
The war cry before the Babrji Masjid was destroyed was “Ek dhakka aur do, Babri Masjid tod do!”.
As Lindstrom writes in Brandwashed in the context of marketers “So whether it’s germs or disease or some feared version of a future self, marketers are amazingly adept at identifying a fear out of the zeitgeist (a German word which means the spirit of the times, italics are mine), activating it, amplifying it and preying on it in it in ways that hit us at the deepest subconscious level.”
Politicians do the same thing. They identify the prevailing fear, like Wal-Mart will get in all low cost Chinese goods (as if Indian companies are not) and destroy the kiranawallas. And then they activate it and amplify it by talking about it in their speeches. And if the comments on this piece that I wrote a couple of days back are anything to go by, they have been successful at it.
And so was Rajiv Gandhi!

The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on December 7, 2012.

(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He can be reached at [email protected])

 

Women are easily persuaded by romantic ads… Men respond to sexual innuendo and women in bikini


What’s the first word recognised by most kids all over the world? No it’s not Mum! Or Dad for that matter “Donald – a variation of McDonald’s is the word. In fact the word beats even the most simple (and emotional word): Mom,” says brand guru Martin Lindstrom. “True, most 18-month-old babies cannot physically articulate the word ‘McDonald’s’, but what they can do is recognise the fast-food chain’s red and yellow colours, roofline, golden arches and logo. Then they can jab their chunky little fingers at a McDonald’s from the backseat of a car,” he writes in his new bookBrandwashed – Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy. Such is the power of brands. In this interview to Vivek Kaul, Lindstrom talks about In the thorny issue of consumer manipulation and gives a full-frontal exposé of the wanton trickery employed by many conglomerates, iconic brands included, to squeeze money out of their loyal customers.
Excerpts:
To what extent can companies go to engineer desire to get us to buy things? 

There’s a fundamental difference between creating a need and activating a need – in my books I do not believe it is possible to create a need simply because it is against our instinctual behaviour – instead I believe it’s all about “activating a need” i.e. a fundamental need we all have – and thus which can be fulfilled in a new way. Our basic need is to be entertained – justifying the existence of the iPod, our fundamental need is to be stimulated – justifying the need for computer games etc.
Could you explain that in a little detail? 
So when we talk about engineering needs I think it is fair to say it is more a matter of engineering new ways of fulfilling pre-existing needs. Needs can be activated in many ways. The typical tools of persuasion would be fear, guilt, aspiration, sex etc. Close to 45% of all advertising in the U.S. today either is based on fear, guilt or sex – fear of not belonging to our group, fear of losing our jobs or fear of death, deceases or theft. Guilt of being overweight, not looking good, not cooking a meal for our kids (simply because we don’t have these cooking skills any longer etc) etc. A lot of communication these days press those buttons – like fuelling the idea of you attracting some disease, or the fear of witnessing some stranger breaking into your home.
An example of fear being used to sell us something that is a hand sanitiser. Why have we welcomed the hand sanitisers into our lives as a cheap, everyday, utterly essential staple, even though they are not very useful?
After the release of SARS followed by swine-flue in 2003 and 2008 we’ve witnessed an amazing uptake of hand-sanitising products. What’s ironic is that none of those products – such as Purell actually do any better job than soap and water – however we’ve led to believe it is the case. The companies has done a extraordinary job in building their brands on the back of the fear created by those global viruses – indicating that we’ll be safe using these brands – once we’ve begun using these – this habit will stay for life. The ironic side of the story however is that the life expectancy in Japan is decreasing for the first time in history – why – because the country simply have become too clean – the Japanese have weakened their immune system as a result of overuse of hand sanitising products.
How and why has fear mongering become a favoured tactic of the marketers?
Because we’re all hardwired to be seduced by fear – fear is the number one soft button in our brain – it is a survival instinct. Fear is used by most insurance companies and even Colgate who claimed in one ad that they could remove the risk of cancer by the usage of their toothpaste. You talk about how certain websites rewiring our brains to get us hooked on the act of shopping and buying. Could you explain this in detail with an example?
Rewiring is a big word – that said some websites indeed are designed to hook us – an example would be the count-down-clock on Amazon.com – which kicks in during the Holiday Season – and begin ticking the minute you’ve landed on the site – this gives you a sense of urgency – pushes the dopamine levels in your brain and result in you acting more irrational (or emotional). In the future we’ll see more and more sites based on gaming concepts – i.e. encouraging us to participate, earn points or in some cases secure access to products before everyone else.
One of the interesting things that you write in Brandwashed is that “Our brand and product preferences are pretty firmly embedded in us by the age of seven…I’d even go so far to suggest that some of the cleverest manufacturers in the world are at work trying to manipulate our taste preferences even earlier than that. Much earlier. Even before we’re even born.” Is it really so?
Before I even was born I fell victim to this very phenomena as my mom and dad danced every evening to their favourite Bossa Nova (a well-known style of Brazilian music developed and popularised in the 1950s and 1960) song. The day I was born the record player dropped on the floor and broke in to pieces – as a result it never played again – and never played from the very day I was born. Ironically I love Bossa Nova – and have done so from the first day I was born my mom and dad, tell me.
So what is the point you are trying to make?
Based on numerous experiments we today know that what mothers eat and listen to during pregnancy affects their un-born babies – this is the principal some companies are tapping into.
Kopiko in the Philippines is a scary example of how far this can go – the manufacturer has for decades been known for its coffee candy – yet recently they entered the coffee market. Their technique to enter the market was to hand out free Kopiko coffee infused candy to pedestrians and doctors for them to give to pregnant mothers. Today Kopiko is one of the leading coffee brands – a position they’ve secured within only very few years.
You write that “in general women tend to more easily persuaded by ads that are more romantic than sexual… Men, on the other hand, respond to sexual innuendo and women in bikini.” Can you explain this in some detail through examples?
Women prefer to be able to continue the storyline – men prefer to see the end of the storyline – sex can play a major role in both scenarios – yet the role of sex would have to change in order to stimulate us accordingly.
What is the ultimate male fantasy? How did Unilever use it to make the Axe brand?
A man sitting in a hot-top-spa with two naked ladies on each side – popping a bottle of Champagne. Unilever, the manufacturer of AXE discovered this very observation based on thousands of interviews and observations of men worldwide – realizing that this very fantasy indeed seems global – and today explaining why AXE uses this very imagination as the foundation for all their ads.
You talk about the migration of the male consumer into a traditional female arena is overturning the rules of marketing and advertising. Can you explain that through examples?
Cosmetics is a great example – until recently men wouldn’t dare even thinking about buying a moisturiser. Today it’s different. This is far from a coincidence – the world’s leading cosmetics companies has for years pushed this trend, by educating men to activate the need for beauty and cleanness. Unilever educated the man to liquid soap (due to cost saving reasons) in the shower in the U.S. something men avoided as they couldn’t cope with the idea of touching their own body in the shower – something they felt was too feminine. The way to justify this change – the introduction of a washing device which would separate the guys hand from the body. And P&G separated the aisles of cosmetics – so that men would have one section far away from the women – ensuring that they wouldn’t be shy buying a cream.
You point out that people get addicted onto brands in two stages, the routine stage and the dream stage. Could you discuss this in detail?
Routine – means daily duties – i.e. using the iTunes service on our iPod, while watching movies on our iPod streamed from our iTV is easy, because we don’t have to think – we just plug and play – it’s a routine. The dream stage is when a brand allows us to dream – or disappear into a dream. Let’s say that you went to Ibiza in Spain for the holiday – you had great fun, drank a lot of Red Bull’s and then return back to the grey-everyday-life. Once you see the Red Bull brand again – in your everyday life you feel the brand helps you to escape back to this dream world – the life you had for just 1 week but which “kind of” can be extended by drinking a Red Bull.
How do companies activate our cravings to get us to buy food products?
In many ways – by among other adding bubbles (or sweat as they call it) onto the cans and bottles – the more bubbles the more craving. Or by playing the sound of a cola being poured into a glass with ice (the worlds 5th most craving generating sound) or by adding many chips on the front of a snack package – the more chips the more we believe there’s in the bag – the more craving we generate.
 “Peer pressure delivers a windfall for brands and companies,” you write. Could you explain that in detail through some examples?
The entire social media space is heaven for brands as it allows to fuel peer pressure – and do it fast. Numerous studies show that this is incredible powerful including the $3 million study I did for my latest book Brandwashed where we realised that it only takes 5 people to convince 195 people to do the same. Pear pressure is everywhere from the recent release of iPhone 5 (I feel embarrassed running around with a iPhone 4) to fashion (you simply can’t wear that tie from two years ago – it is too old-fashioned) to cigarette smoking.
What is a perceived justification symbol?
It’s a way to convert intangible stuff into tangible stuff – to make the invisible benefit become visible. Let’s take the dishwashing tablet – it has a white, blue level and a red dot – indicating the powerful magical clean button. The reality is that it’s all the same but we get a sense of that something “black box” stuff is happening – cleaning our plates. Another example is Duracell’s power meter – which helps us to measure how much battery power there’s left in the battery. Why is this a genius idea? Because consumers fundamentally believe that batteries hanging in the store looses power – and thus by installing such device – a PJS we’ll be convinced otherwise.
Why does nostalgia marketing work well in uncertain economic times?
It gives us certainty, comfort and creates a framework of safety around us. Studies show that we indeed recall past memories in a more positive light that present memories – this phenomena is called Rosy Memories and is used by many brands including Pepsi’s recent Throwback – a replicate of the old Pepsi recipe and pack design to Coke’s re-play of “I want to teach the world to sing”.
Can a famous face really have that much of an impact on how we spend our money? Are we human beings that naïve?
We all need leaders around us – in today’s world where fewer countries have royal families as leaders, where politicians are failing – celebrities becomes our leaders of our time. We’re hardwired to be seduced by such leaders even though we know they might not be real – kind of like some people knock-on-wood for good luck – despite the fact that they very well know it has no effect.
(The article originally appeared in the Daily News and Analysis on September 24, 2012. http://www.dnaindia.com/money/interview_romantic-ads-seduce-women-men-fall-for-sexual-innuendo_1744404)
(Interviewer Kaul is a writer. He can be reached at [email protected])

Why warnings against smoking could be injurious to health


Vivek Kaul

First it was Naseeruddin Shah. Then came Rahul Bose. He was followed by Irrfan. And now the baton for the thinking woman’s sex symbol seems to have been passed onto Nawazuddin Siddiqui. Siddiqui in his tour de force performance as Faizal Khan (pronounced Faijal) in Gangs of Wasseypur II has firmly made himself an actor to watch out for.
His character is shown to be constantly smoking cigarettes or ganja throughout the movie. In a doped state he promises his mother “baap ka, dada ka, sabka badla lega tera Faijal”. He even tries to impress his girl friend ala Rajinikanth by trying to flip a cigarette first unsuccessfully and then successfully, into his mouth. Given this, the movie does begin with the usual disclaimer “Cigarette smoking is injurious to health. It causes cancer.” The disclaimer appears even after the movie starts again after the interval.
The information and broadcasting ministry now has planned to tighten the screws further on movies which show characters smoking. In a circular dated August 2, 2012, the ministry has made it mandatory for films that have smoking scenes to shoot a 20 second disclaimer. This disclaimer is to be shot with the actor who is shown to be smoking in the movie. It has to be repeated when the movie re-starts after the interval, like the current disclaimer is. Over and above that a message saying “cigarette smoking is injurious to health” has to be flashed during the entire duration of a smoking scene. (You can read the complete report here).
The move is in line with the government policy to discourage smoking. In line with this policy, every packet of cigarette now carries gruesome pictures showing the negative effects of smoking. These graphic images show various ways in which people are affected by smoking. These could be lung tumours, gangrenous feet and toes, throat cancers and so on.
On the face of it these moves seem to make sense given that one third of adult males around the world smoke. Nicotine addiction is one of the biggest killers of human beings around the world.
But the question that crops up here is that do these warnings really work?
First and foremost the disclaimers in place or those that are being put in place work with the assumption that people who smoke “cigarettes” do not understand the risk of smoking. Is that true?
In his bestselling book The Tipping Point Malcolm Gladwell talks about a study carried out by Harvard University which asked smokers to guess how many years of their life smoking would take, if they started smoking at the age of 21. The average response of the smokers was nine years, higher than the actual six or seven years that it would cost them. So the notion that smokers smoke because they do not understand the risks of smoking is at best juvenile.
But what about a country like India where half the population is functionally illiterate? Do those who smoke cigarettes understand the risk of smoking them?
If we look at the definition of poverty in this country, those spending less than or equal to Rs 28.65 per day in cities or Rs 22.42 in rural areas, are deemed to be poor. Now these are not the people who would be smoking cigarettes which can cost anywhere from Rs 2-5 per stick. They simply cannot afford it. They smoke bidis.
So chances are the average Indian who smokes cigarettes earns reasonably well and is educated enough to understand the risks of smoking. But he still smokes.
If the government really wants to discourage smoking and reduce the ill effects of tobacco consumption in this country, they should be concentrating on bidis, gutkas and pan masalas rather than cigarettes.
That’s one part of the argument. People who smoke understand its risk and continue to smoke. The other part that needs to be discussed is that do pictorial warnings and disclaimers of various kinds work? Do they discourage people from smoking?
A recent research seems to suggest the opposite i.e. the warnings seem to encourage people to smoke more. Brand Guru Martin Lindstrom carried out a functional magnetic resonance imaging tests on the brains of smokers a few years back. He showed them what he felt was one of the most effective anti-smoking ads he had ever seen.
“A group of people are sitting around and chatting and smoking. They’re having a jolly good time, except for one problem: instead of smoke, thick, greenish-yellow globules of fat are pouring out of the tips of their cigarettes, congealing, coalescing and splattering onto their ashtrays. The more the smokers talk and gesture, the more those caterpillar-sized wads of fats end up on the table, the floor, their shirtsleeves, all over the place. The point being, of course, that smoking spreads these same globules of fat throughout your bloodstream, clogging up your arteries and wreaking havoc with your health,” writes Lindstrom in his book Buyology – How Everything We Believe About Why We Buy is Wrong.
When this advertisement was shown to smokers who took part in this experiment they weren’t put off by the gruesome images of fat. As Lindstrom writes “They weren’t put off by the gruesome images of artery-clogging fart; they barely even noticed them.”
But what the message did instead was that it activated the “craving spot” in the brain. “Cigarette warnings…stimulated an area of the smokers’ brains called the nucleus accumbens, otherwise known as “the craving spot.”. The region is a chain-link of specialized neurons that lights up when the body desires something – whether it’s alcohol, drugs, tobacco, sex, or gambling. When stimulated, the nucleus accumbens requires higher and higher doses to get its fix,” points out Lindstrom. So the gruesome advertisement made people want to smoke more instead of less. This was an unintended consequence.
“Camel smokers experienced more cravings when they saw illustrations of Camels and Camel logos, and Marlboro smokers experienced more cravings when they saw illustrations of the iconic Marlboro Man,” writes Lindstrom in his new book Brandwashed – Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy.
Another move that has been resorted to is the blurring out of smoking images when the trailers and songs of new movies are played on television. The song Chikni Chameli from Agneepath has some side dancers smoking bidis. This visual has been blurred out on television. In the trailers of Gangs of Wasseypur II the chillum being smoked by Faizal Khan has been blurred out. What is the point of doing this? I guess the only people who do not understand that the character is smoking a bidi or a chillum are the babus at the ministry of information and broadcasting. In fact the blurring may even attract adolescents and children and they might try to figure out what exactly is being blurred. Ironically scenes in older movies where characters are shown drinking and smoking continue to be broadcast as it is.
Also this does bring us back to the fundamental point whether cinema is a reflection of the world that we live in? The world that we live in allows smoking. It is not an illegal activity. But rape is illegal. And movies are allowed to show rape scenes. Actor Shakti Kapoor made a career out of raping film heroines on screen. So if rape scenes are allowed on screen what is the problem with smoking?
(The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on August 11,2012. http://www.firstpost.com/living/why-warnings-against-smoking-could-be-injurious-to-health-414602.html/2)
(Vivek Kaul is a writer who can be reached at [email protected] He does not smoke)