Shifting lakes, soap in rivers: The ecological ignorance of the ad industry

Playing god is not easy. It takes a lot of confidence. Almost as much as it takes not to doubt the afternoon freshness of one’s body. Or is it the other way round? Can there be a better advertisement of confidence than a proclamation of godly powers and wanton freedom?

So we watched a few sharp, good men discuss the progress of a hydel power project at a scenic hill location by a lake. One decidedly less sharp, nay-saying subordinate tells the boss why the project was not possible because of the lake. “Well, shift the lake up,” orders the boss, “it takes just a phone call.” As the subordinate mumbles if he should call God to accomplish the feat, he is told to contact Kirloskar instead. The tagline –“a challenging task at hand, a call is all it takes” – reinforced the capability of the group’s widest range of engineering solutions.

This 30-second ad – “the planned city” – stumped many in December 2010. A few years earlier, I had participated in a green film festival sponsored by the Kirloskar group and heard its owners proudly flaunt their environment-friendly pumps, which were meant to usher in a revolution for agricultural growth. It was rather inexplicable why the brand would draw up such an arrogant message that so clearly flouted environmental values and norms.

But then, Kirloskar’s proudest moment came when it set up 26 mega concrete volute pumps on a canal of the Narmada project and moved a lot of water (630 cubic meters per second) uphill in Gujarat’s Saurashtra. Therefore, technically, the claim of lifting a lake was not an overstatement. But, seriously, can anyone -- even god, except through the apparently ungodly act of an earthquake – really shift a lake, or a river?

A water body is much more than just water. A lake, for example, is a lentic (static water) ecosystem with numerous layers. Depending on its depth, it has three broad zones -- pelagic (open water), benthic (side slopes and shore) and profundal (lakebed not exposed to sunlight) – which support a host of biotic and abiotic diversity.

Shifting the water up or down can be a technological possibility but nothing can transplant these living systems or create their equivalent at a new location overnight.

The brazen message of the campaign was not lost on the viewers. This AV was among the 38 ads against which complaints were lodged with the Advertising Standards Council of India’s National Advertising Monitoring Service which came into being this year.

Is this the new 'adventurous and awesome' India? Television screengrab

In June, the Consumer Complaints Council upheld the objection against the Kirloskar AV. Yet, the spot has not been taken off air.

Kirloskar’s overenthusiasm to move (read pump out) lakes may justify the group’s motto of “giving life to water” but what explains Cinthol’s new campaign, that is all about putting soap to water? A press note released by the company says, “The iconic Cinthol brand has always been synonymous with Confidence… Right from the 1980s with Vinod Khanna riding a horse on a beach… Cinthol has been able to build a strong equity around Confidence.”

That does it. Cinthol had shied away from showing Khanna abandoning his black horse to embrace the waves with his “body confidence soap” but that was the 1980s. Three decades on, the confidence has grown. The “Alive is Awesome” campaign portrays an “innovative adventure bathing” concept. We see youths soaping in the wild under a waterfall, on elephant back, in an arctic ice pond and being splashed by black kids with several bucketfuls in a water-scarce Africa.

The bit set in an African village is perhaps only an ethical concern but the rest of the ad is a travesty of science and common sense. No soap, not even the so-called biodegradable ones (which Cinthol is not), is safe for use in natural water systems. The chemical contamination is lethal for aquatic life. It is a health hazard for others who bathe in the same water.

When the contamination reaches the groundwater, the damage is permanent.

Several upmarket international soap brands are associated with the term river but the only bathing aid any veteran camper will recommend in the wild is a washcloth. The invisible damage soaps cause became startlingly apparent three years ago when a minor chemical spill from a detergent factory near Manchestor in UK resulted in a 2-feet-deep layer of foam covering a 5-km stretch of the river Irk downstream.

The erring company, Robert McBride Ltd, was subsequently made to cough up £81,200 in damage control and fines.

While it is not uncommon in India to find people using soaps in community ponds and rivers that flow through villages and towns, the danger of chemical contamination of surface and groundwater is not lost even on the uneducated. At most religious places where thousands take a dip in holy rivers or hot-springs daily, soap and oil is prohibited.

A few years ago, I was pleasantly surprised to see a bunch of well-to-do pilgrims thrown out of waters by local volunteers at Haridwar for soaping up in the Ganga.

So what about the youth in the Cinthol ad? Sajan RaJ Kurup, founder and chairman of Creativeland Asia, has been quoted in the media as saying that “creating this campaign has been an adventure in itself” as it “celebrates and recognises a more adventurous and international India… a less inhibited and intimidated Indian”.

For Sunil Kataria, executive VP, Sales & Marketing, Godrej Consumer Products, “the idea of shooting in Iceland along with a few breathtaking locations in India was to get this ‘Awesome’ experience”.

This, the ad is a projection of a new India -- adventurous and international -- and its youth -- less inhibited and intimidated – who reach out to breathtaking, wild locations only to spoil it by soaping up in
any natural water available just because they want to feel alive and awesome. Just like the embodiment of the technological prowess of a new India in Kirloskar is threateningly restless to lay its hands (and pumps) on any lake or river around.

Does such ignorance of environmental realities in an increasingly evolved time reflect how these brands actually assess their target audience? Or do they demand a creative licence for knowingly sidestepping basic hygiene and ecology to make a simplistic brand appeal? Either way, it doesn't wash.

Updated Date: Oct 07, 2012 14:27 PM

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