By Anindita Mukhopadhyay
In a further step back in time, the Information and Broadcasting (I&B) Ministry released a notification this Monday, advising all TV channels to restrict the air-time of condom commercials on their channels to between 10 pm and 6 am – the watershed hours. The notification aims “to avoid exposure of such material to children and to ensure strict adherence to the provisions.”
The I&B ministry claims that “some channels carry ads of condoms repeatedly which are alleged to be indecent especially for children,” citing Rule 7 of the Cable Television Network Rules, 1994 (the Rule). The Rule specifically states that “indecent, vulgar, suggestive, repulsive or offensive themes or treatment shall be avoided in all advertisements.” It adds that advertisements that endanger the safety of children or create in them any interest in unhealthy practices shall not be carried.
The role of ASCI
This advisory was a response to an appeal by the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), which received a slew of complaints against certain condom commercials, specifically one starring Sunny Leone. ASCI Secretary-General Shweta Purandare indicates that as a self-regulatory body, the ASCI cannot issue a directive to private companies. Hence, “it must seek the advice of the I&B Ministry in this regard.” The Council, prompted by the complainants, suggested that the Ministry advise all TV channels to enforce regulations on condom advertisements as they are meant solely for adult viewing.
ASCI is a non-governmental, self-regulating organization of the advertising sector. Its Code for Self-Regulation in Advertising, states the norms on the subject in Chapter II: Non-Offensive to the Public. It is summarised as “to ensure that advertisements are not offensive to the generally accepted standards of decency advertisements should contain nothing indecent, vulgar (especially in the depiction of women), or nothing repulsive which is likely, in the generally prevailing standards of decency and propriety, to cause grave and widespread offence.”
Existing broadcast regulations
In terms of broadcasting, the term ‘watershed’ and ‘safe harbour’ refer to parts of the day, appropriate for broadcasting programmes aimed towards adult or more mature audiences. Currently, the general broadcast code allows only programming having received a ‘universal’ or U certificate to be telecast on TV. However, as evident, this code is regularly flouted. Inspired by the Ofcom (Office of Communication) guidelines framed by the UK in July 2005, the I&B Ministry has attempted to introduce ‘watershed’ timings in India earlier as well. However, it has only been implemented in isolated cases, and never on a broader scale.
Criticism of the ruling
Condom commercials are mainly considered indecent for their sexually explicit content and emphasis on eroticism rather than its utilitarian aspects. It depicts the use of condoms in unmarried couples and hence is misunderstood as promoting sex outside marriage. This is far from its true purpose to promote safe sex for all, in every situation. Moreover, the implied message of having sex for pleasure rather than merely for procreation purposes is unthinkable for the more prudish. Paromita Vohra, the founder of Agents of Ishq – a multi-media project promoting conversations around sex and love, asserts that the nature and content of an advertisement can be debated, but a blanket ban on their telecast is counterproductive and stigmatises sex.
As a nation well on its way to becoming the most populous country, the need of the hour is to have more condom advertising. Mohan Rao, professor at the Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health at JNU, also finds the decision to be counterproductive and has stated that “This is antithetical to the goals of public health especially at a time when data seems to indicate condom use is declining and there is a need to increase it substantially.”
The ruling is found to be irrelevant in the current digital age. With adult content and pornography freely available on the web, the ban is rendered an exercise in futility. Moreover, children in this day and age, are far more tech-savvy than we ever were. Hence as mentioned by Rohit Ohri, group chairman at advertising agency FCB India, “Creating taboos is not the answer. Creating healthy discussion is.” It is imperative to focus on educating the impressionable youth, specifically by introducing sex and birth control education in senior schools.
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