The deceitful power of ads

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By David Matende

The ads are simply bad. In one, a young man jerks his waist  in simulation of the sex act as a group of girls admire him. In another, a guy pulls the sleeves of his shirt  to reveal a muscular, tattooed arm (deliberately designed to resemble the male organ) as a woman driving past ogles.

In yet another, a stud complains about his day job and expresses joy at retiring in the evening to his passion – a night job at “the decks”.

These are commercials that advertise the various brands of condoms. Invariably running during the 9 o’clock prime time news on the main national TV stations, they are the torment of many a parent.

So when the Kenya Film Classification Board (KFCB) announced that it had banned sexually suggestive advertisements and commercials as well as those advertising alcohol, betting and gambling at hours when all family members are likely to be watching many sighed with relief.

While banning them, KFCB correctly pointed out these ads were having bad influences on the public, and particularly on children. The board should have added that these commercials are a source of shame and embarrassment for fathers watching TV with their daughters and mothers watching with their sons.

Hopefully, viewers of free-to-air TV will never again suffer that indignity, at least not during the watershed period, which is between 5 a.m. and 10 p.m.

Expectedly, the action by the board elicited mixed reactions. While this column is militantly opposed to censorship (you never know who will be the next victim after the condoms!) and crusades for freedom of expression, it is at the same time takes a dim view of businesses that abuse that freedom for commercial gains.

Some critics of the guidelines pointed out cynically that the board is engaged in a futile effort – after all, in this era of internet, satellite TV, et cetera, anyone (children included) can access any material, anywhere, any time.

However, this is to miss the point. While it is true that people can access any material, including pornography elsewhere, they do that because they choose to. But it is distasteful, illegal in fact, for a captive audience watching news on a free-to-air channel to be bombarded ‒ in the middle of a news bulletin ‒ with sordid ads.

It may not be the mandate of the KFCB to enforce the programming code – that mandate belongs to the Communications Authority (CA) – but that is not the point.

Section 46H (d) of the Kenya Information and Communications Act mandates the CA to not only develop the code but also to ensure broadcasters  abide by it.

The  KFCB also says that it mandated by the Films and Stage Plays Act  and the Kenya Information and Communication Act to not only regulate films by rating them but also to monitor broadcast stations to ensure content meant for adults is not aired during watershed period (5 a.m. – 10 p.m.).

Whether one supports the action by the board or not, it’s controversial decision has given us an opportunity to start talking about the advertising industry.

It is surprising that there is very little debate on advertising in Kenya, yet advertisements are very powerful messages.  Their influence people’s thoughts, feelings and actions is huge and it is time people started questioning standards.

While other forms of mass communication, including journalism, are always under close scrutiny, advertising is hardly interrogated. Most of the time, advertisers just get away with murder.

While the original aim of advertising was simply to give information on a new product or service, today’s ads are designed to dictate not only our purchases but also our psychological processes.

There should be serious focus on advertisements and the extravagant promises they make. Consumers should be educated the deceptive style of today’s advertiser. This is important because a misleading advertisement can lead to unnecessary purchases, at best. At worse, advertisements have been known to be the cause of neurosis of instant gratification and consumerism, leading to unfulfilled promises of intangible qualities like happiness, security, friendships, and meaning.

Let’s go into the minds of today’s creators of advertisements in order to understand this phenomenon. Makers of ads deliberately employ associative properties to make the products they are advertising instantly desirable.

For example, a Coke ad portrays very attractive young women in bikinis and good looking men enjoying the drink. Anyone watching this commercial is likely to associate Coke with sex appeal.

The subtle message is, therefore, that if you drink Coke, you will have sex appeal. But is this true? As a matter of fact, instead of making one attractive to the members of the opposite sex, too much consumption of Coke is likely to make one diabetic!

Many buyers, particularly young, impressionable ones, imagine that by  buying a certain product or brand  associated with positive attributes, like fame, fortune, success, sex, happiness, and friendship, they will possess these attributes.

Unfortunately, many buyers are unaware of the danger in these associative tactics. It is because they do not know this that they are drawn to certain products over others.

Advertisements are invasive by nature, partly because they are ubiquitous, but mostly because they manipulate our psyches, and we do not even take notice. Scholars have studied how advertising influences societies’ inclinations, habits, and desires. One scholar, Andrew Gustafson, found out that advertising is a very powerful moulder of society’s character. He therefore concluded that because they are powerful, advertisements have a moral responsibility to help shape society’s character.

Kenya’s laws are hazy on the responsibility of advertisers. Before the KFCB’s controversial ban that sought to stop advertisers of condoms and alcohol from advertising during certain hours, authorities seemed little bothered by the goings-on in the advertising industry.

Only the National Agency against Alcohol and Drugs Abuse (Nacada) had demanded the enforcement of certain regulations on alcohol and cigarette advertising.

Before Nacada’s aggressive stand on alcohol and cigarette advertising, the only significant demand by the authorities had been that advertisements of certain products carry “buyer beware” information.

The thinking behind this is that the buyer is purchasing at his own risk and is aware of his own liability in purchasing. If he makes a bad purchase due to false advertisement, this is his own fault.

However, this idea makes little sense and actually works against the buyer because first, advertisements hardly portray the accurate picture of the product, and secondly there is potential psychological damage to the consumer.

The buyer is not only cheated into buying an exaggerated product because of deceptive advertising, but is also mentally influenced by subtle allusions.

For example, advertisers who use light-skinned or thin models in their advertisements should consider the potential psychological implications that their ads may have on young dark-skinned females.

After being exposed to this type of advertisement, girls may assume that light skin or thin is society’s standard of beauty. As a result, many girls may develop body image issues.

Authorities in several jurisdictions in Europe and America have for a long time been concerned about the influence of advertising on society. In the US, for example, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has strict regulations that prevent   misleading advertisements.

In Kenya, the advertising fraternity has chosen the self-regulation way. The Marketing Society of Kenya and the Association of Practioners in Advertising developed the Advertising Code of Practice and Guiding Principles for the Kenyan Market.

The body responsible for enforcing the code is Advertising Standards Body of Kenya: According to its website, it is supposed to “ensure that its system of self-regulation works in an efficient and sufficient manner and that its principal activities do not work in any way whatsoever, against the public interest.

However, apart from arbitrating disputes between advertisers whose advertising messages offend other advertisers, there is little else the body has achieved.

Recently, Safaricom filed a complaint with the body Kenya accusing Orange Kenya of using Safaricom sim cards in their advertisements in an effort to woe subscribers from the latter.
While the body is not anchored in the laws and therefore lacks legal safeguards, it has the power and influence to compel a brand to withdraw or otherwise change an advertisement.  It has not used these powers to protect consumers from deceptive advertisers, limiting itself mainly to quarrels between advertisers.

CA and KFCB can do nothing about the content and style used by advertisers to cheat consumers. That is the re mandate of the Advertising Standard Body.

While the condom ads that simulate the sex act and the alcohol ads may no longer run on free-to-air channels during the watershed period, many others that use subtle tactics to bamboozle consumers will continue to run on TV screen, until someone demands that ads start telling the “truth”, that they accurately portray products.

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