The advertising industry thrives on provocation -- exploiting the exotic, titillating the senses, etc. Often, this manifests in pictures of scantily clad women or beefy men, selling themselves as part of the product.
But sometimes, the ad execs go a bit further. This week, stories have broken about two high-profile campaigns that have prompted riotous uproar (on the Internet and on the streets).
The first is Saatchi & Saatchi's abortive attempt to highlight the longevity of Doc Marten's shoes by depicting fallen rockers donning the treads. Kurt Cobain perches atop a cloud in the stompers, a hangdog expression, above the company's logo and the word "forever." Doc Marten's has since fired the ad agency and pulled the series.
The second is the Times of India's shill for its SMS dating service, which features the god Krishna as a dating guru, using his mobile phone to attract devoted gopis by the dozen. The Hindu Janjagruti Samiti has staged protests in Mumbai, claiming "'dating' is a social vice. Those advocating this concept are launching an attack on our culture. Persons responsible for this issue, detrimental from the social and religious viewpoint, should be severely punished."
Perhaps I'm just a rabble rouser, because I think both ads are fairly intriguing. If we acknowledge that advertising is 1) about selling product and 2) sales do not depend upon quality and product features, but also are a consequence of novelty, buzz, etc., then these are both fairly ingenious ploys to evoke a response. Some people will find the shoe ads tasteless and give up buying the boots; but in fact, many of the people who still wear the grunge-era staple may find the campaign caters to their self-image as rebels, brigands, outliers on the social spectrum not obligated to conform with social and cultural mores.
Furthermore, within India, phone applications are becoming so ubiquitous that companies must at all costs find a way to stand out -- lord knows I immediately delete the viral Hutch ads SMSed to me, promising hot blondes and sexy babes if I just log on. TOI is tapping into an overpenetrated audience, and sometimes they must pull outrageous stunts so their service makes it into the news -- it's all the better for them if a group of morons sets up a microphone in Dadar and starts screaming about Hindu morality. They can then run a story about the youth's reactions, affirmations of a new identity, a hip counterculture, that doesn't need to conform with their parents' views of the world. Some people will see the service (and TOI) as an objectionable intrustion, but others will find a social space they may not know have existed -- and they'll be able to (bingo!) become a part of it by exchanging money for street cred.
I suppose my conclusion is that content isn't just about content; it's about the reactions it incites and the way in which people base identity upon a perception of being with or against the larger social system. I'm not "for" or "against" either of these ads, and for me, to attach value statements to either is beside the point; what is most fascinating is the way in which advertising becomes a means of consolidating identity in opposition or in alignment with particular commercial entities. Fascinating.