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Who’s Scamming Whom?

JWT and Ford have found themselves up shit-creek thanks to a sexist ad campaign. But who’s to blame?

JWT's sexist Ad

In an attempt to demonstrate that JWT and Ford too are outraged by their creative insolence and to save face, JWT sacked Bobby Pawar, its National Creative Director and Managing Partner. Also sacked is the Creative Director of Blue Hive (the WPP unit which manages the Ford account), Vijay Simha Vellanki.

Here’s how it happened.

In the last week, the media – mainstream and social – has been abuzz with images of a “scam ad” campaign created by JWT. So what is a “scam ad”? It’s commonplace for ad agencies to create ad campaigns solely to enter advertising award shows. It has been reported before that “these ads are often made for a client without the client’s consent, and sometimes, the agency or creatives don’t even have that client on their roster. It may run once, paid for by the agency. Many times, it never runs at all”.

A couple of weeks ago, the advertising website www.adsoftheworld.com carried three advertisements created for Ford Figo by JWT India.

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The first features a caricature of the former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, the second is Paris Hilton in the driver’s seat with the Kardashian sisters; and the third is a caricature of Michael Schumacher in the driver’s seat with Sebastian Vettel, Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso in the boot. The tagline of the ads is – “Leave your worries behind”.

These ads went viral and JWT and Ford found themselves, to put it mildly, up shit-creek without a paddle. The ads which displayed an inspired mix of bondage, objectification and nudity have – not surprisingly – been slammed for being sexist and offensive. No one was willing to take the blame for the ads. Both companies released statements which bandied about words like “integrity”, “professionalism” and “standards”. And Ford claimed ignorance of these ads, while JWT decided to display shock and dismay.

According to an Indian Express news report, “According to JWT insiders, the three posters in question were created during December last year and the sole objective was to enter Abby Awards at Goafest, India’s largest advertising festival held around April every year”.

And then, in an attempt to close the stable door as well as it could, JWT sacked Bobby Pawar and Vijay Simha Vellanki.

Now, this isn’t the first time a controversy of this sort has taken place in the ad world. In June 2011, CBS reported that the Silver Lion at Cannes was awarded to a pedophilia-themed campaign for Kia (a car brand) by a Brazilian ad agency called Moma. “The offensive ads showed a sexual situation between a male teacher and an underage student; and two children in the Sleeping Beauty myth alongside an adult-oriented re-interpretation. They were intended to highlight Kia’s hot-and-cold dual air conditioning zones for driver and passenger in the Sportage.” According to Kia, they had never worked with the agency in question, nor were they aware of this fake campaign. No heads rolled at Kia or at Moma though.

We spoke with Bobby Pawar to get his side of the story and asked why he’d been sacked – given the fact that when we spoke to him on Tuesday (before he was asked to leave JWT) he was still gainfully employed and had mentioned that the Figo account wasn’t even handled by him. “I got screwed over. It happens…I didn’t have much to do with it to begin with. You sign up for a big job in a big company, you will be held responsible for many things, you will be made the scape-goat and it’s okay.” Very pragmatic of Pawar, who was vacationing in Kashmir and asked us to get back to him “in a couple of days” when he’s in a “better state of mind”.

Ford refused to comment on any of the questions we posed to them and had a singular answer for all. “We deeply regret this incident and agree with our agency partners that it should have never happened.  The posters are contrary to the standards of professionalism and decency within Ford and our agency partners. Together with our partners, we are reviewing approval and oversight processes to help ensure nothing like this ever happens again. After an internal review, our agency partners took appropriate disciplinary action.”

In cahoots with their client, JWT had one answer for all our questions, “We deeply regret the publishing of posters that were distasteful and contrary to the standards of professionalism and decency at JWT. These were never intended for paid publication, were never requested by our Ford client and should never have been created, let alone uploaded to the internet. These posters were created by individuals within the agency and did not go through the normal review and oversight process. After a thorough internal review, we have taken appropriate disciplinary action with those involved, which included the exit of employees at JWT. These were necessary steps owing to the direct accountability of the concerned individuals as we work to ensure that both the right oversight and processes are strictly enforced so that this never happens again.”

According to the IE report, “According to a senior executive overseeing entries at Goafest, this year, 13 entries were received on behalf of Ford India. All of them accompanied letters of approval from a senior executive of Ford India. A striking fact, however, was that while 10 entries had the titles of the campaign written on the letters, the three posters in question didn’t have any titles but only the signatures”. When we asked Ford how signed letters of approval had been taken from them for a campaign which they weren’t even aware of, they sent us the same response with token variation. Maybe, they didn’t understand the question. But how hard is it?

Nothing is adding up and everyone is keeping shut, despite heads rolling. None of the veteran advertising honchos we spoke to agreed to comment on how common this is in the ad world. No comments on the specific instance either, or whether it was possible for Ford to be unaware of these ad fest entries.

Worth mentioning is that while very few stories from India make it to CNN, this one did. Not the “India story” we’re so keen to sell. Is it? While our Indian news channels and newspapers can go blue in the face about not objectifying women in pop culture, they’re strangely silent on one of the world’s largest advertising agencies and a very well-known car brand being involved in creating advertisements which are objectionable. Other than the stray news item on a business channel and news reports in some newspapers, the entire matter seems to have fallen on a media blind spot. Honey Singh is obviously easier to pillory than WPP and Martin Sorrell.

In the meantime, maybe Ford should pat JWT on the back for taking their tagline “Go Further” to heart. This time, however, they might have gone just a bit too far.

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