No condom ads between 6 am and 10 pm: I&B ministry's problem is not with sex but with sex as pleasure

I must admit I have some sneaking sympathy for the no-condom ads policy between 6 am and 10 pm.

It’s probably because I still remember those CopperT ads from Doordarshan days. We would be watching some harmless family entertainment on television. And suddenly without warning a public service announcement for CopperT would pop up on television, right there in our living room. An awkward silence would descend as we pointedly ignored the television. I didn’t quite understand what the CopperT did exactly and how it did it but I knew that it was better not to ask either. 'Hum Do, Hamare Do' was the extent of our comfort level when it came to talking about birds and bees at home.

But times have changed. That was pre-Sunny Leone India. 'Nirodh India' has given way to 'Kamasutra India'. Now in the middle of a Bengali newscast, we see ads for something called "Japani tel" or Japanese oil, a "natural" remedy for stronger, harder male power. And if you missed the point, a cobra suddenly stands upright, hood potently flared and sways suggestively. Then it’s back to the news about the latest statement by Mamata Banerjee. Admittedly, a bit off-putting in the middle of afternoon tea.

A man shows a packet of government-supplied 'Nirodh' condoms after collecting it from a distribution center at a hospital in New Delhi April 1, 2015. India is readying a redesign of the staid packaging of its half-century-old condom brand, incorporating pictures of handsome men and gorgeous women, in a desperate bid to seduce customers drawn to fancier versions sold by private firms. To match INDIA-HEALTH/CONDOMS REUTERS/Adnan Abidi - GF10000046018

Government supplied Nirodh condoms. Reuters

Now the government has come to our aid. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has swung into action because Rule 7 (7) of the Cable Television Network Rules says “no advertisement which endangers the safety of children or create in them any interest in unhealthy practices or shows them begging or in an undignified or indecent manner shall be carried in the cable service". Furthermore, the Cable Television Network Rules 1994 says "indecent, vulgar, suggestive, repulsive or offensive themes or treatment shall be avoided in all advertisements".

Unfortunately, by reminding us of these rules, the ministry has also exposed its own blinkered view of the world. If “suggestive” is a problem, that famous Liril girl should never have come out of the water. If “offensive” is an issue, we should get all those skin whitening ads off television pronto. And for that matter, a slew of other ads where gender stereotypes are sledgehammered home in 30 seconds or less.

Of course, if more condoms were used, fewer pregnancies would happen, but that’s presumably not how the ministry is interpreting advertisements that endanger the safety of children. And if we were so concerned about “unhealthy practices”, we should spend a lot more attention on those ads for potato chips and colas than on condoms.

The touchy issue is of course indecency. That’s what gets us really hot under the collar. The I&B ministry alleges these ads are "indecent", especially for children. The problem is not that the ads are about sex but that they are about sex as pleasure. They use words like “play” in them. They are talking about safe sex but they are selling pleasure more than they are selling birth control.

Triple X condoms in nine mazedaar flavours like mango, banana, strawberry being ordered over the phone, God forbid, by a woman! They have names like Moods, Manforce and Kamasutra instead of the more wholesome Nirodh which carries protection in its name. The story goes when the mass-produced condoms were introduced in 1963, they were given a more exciting name — Kamaraj. But that also happened to be the name of the Congress party president of those days. So the stolidly bland Nirodh got the nod instead.

But since then, the condom industry has got its groove back. It's now a condom fiesta. They brag about greater stimulation rather than greater protection. Durex promises to be even in our dreams. The bai making up the room and cleaning the bed breaks into a jig when she spots a condom under the covers. The grumpy middle-aged couple waiting for an elevator cracks a smile when they spot the young man rushing to catch a falling condom packet. Ranveer Singh loves to #DoTheRex and prance around in tight jeans, bouncing on exercise balls. But despite this pretence of khullam-khulla coolness, many ads still promise "100% privacy and concealed shipping".

We are fine with condoms as birth control or even STD control. But when they promise to enhance pleasure, we balk. Pleasure, it turns out, is to be limited between 10 pm and 6 am. Or so the government hopes.

This is not some sanskari prudishness unique to India. Condom ads during prime time have been debated around the world. It was only in 2010 that the advertising code in Britain was changed to allow contraceptive ads to be broadcast before 9 pm as part of an attempt to cut teenage pregnancy rates. In 2005, when WB and NBC in the US broadcast commercials for Trojan condoms during prime-time, it made national news. There were no formal government restrictions on condom ads, but they just tended to be banished to late-night television. The AIDS crisis pushed the debate further when a Lifestyle condom ad aired on ABC, in which a young woman tells the audience "I'll do a lot for love. I won't die for it."

It’s quite understandable that it makes us uncomfortable when ads that look like soft porn show up in the middle of a family dinner. But to ban all condoms ads outright for the "sins" of a few is a bit like throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
Rohit Ohri, chairman of the advertising agency FCB India, told The Economic Times, that if the Sunny Leone ad for Manforce is deemed offensive, "We should ban that advertisement and not regulate all condom advertising."

What's revealing in this new directive is that it thinks condom ads would create in children an "interest in unhealthy practices". Here’s a newsflash for the government. Youngsters in India (and the not-so-young) are already very interested in sex. They don’t need condom ads to remind them about their raging hormones. They have the internet handy. As a matter of fact, if you have sex on your mind, a condom should qualify as a “healthy practice”, not an unhealthy one.

If the government worried a little less about sex (between 6 am and 10 pm) and a little more about sex education somewhere during those hours, we’d be far better off as a nation.

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Updated Date: Dec 13, 2017 08:03:25 IST

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