This Christmas, St Mattews Church (Auckland, New Zealand) decided to celebrate in a different way – it put up a controversial billboard on Joseph and Mary, challenging Christians the very foundation of their religion!
Result – Thousands of criticisms, hundreds of praises, and tones of vague logic. But most importantly, global publicity of the campaign, engaging half of the “clicker universe”!

The advert was designed by M&C Saatchi, Auckland, with the brief that it had to be sufficiently provocative to keep most other churches from allowing it. It was designed to challenge stereotypes about the way that Jesus was conceived, and get people talking about the Christmas story.

The initial intent behind the campaign was to invite people to think about the virgin birth and the nature of God, be open to more than one Christian way to think about God, to promote the Progressive view of Jesus having 2 human parents and God being the power of love in his life and to invite people outside of the church to see a type of Christianity here at St Matthew’s that they might be able to relate to.

What turned out was obviously far more provocative than they expected. The billboard, carrying the slogan, “Poor Joseph. God is a hard act to follow” received global attention..

According to the article, “Losing Your Message but Gaining Publicity”, “Most Protestants & others with no church affiliation thought the billboard was simply comparing Joseph’s ability in bed to God’s. Catholics were outraged as the billboard implied Mary wasn’t a virgin. Others thought it was a good joke and it was about time “the church” got a sense of humor.

It outraged many Christians throughout the country–so much so that it was defaced within a few hours. The church replaced it with another print. That, too, was ripped apart by a knife-wielding vandal. And the church replaced it with yet another print. The billboard was stolen again, and the church finally decided not to replace it. “
For more on the campaign, read A Tale of two billboards!

Bottomline….Did heads turn, and were links double clicked? Yes – A BIG Yes in fact – it did manage to break the clutter and get noticed – not only in its local community, but virtually around the world!! However, from a marketing standpoint, does this fall into the right “spirits”? (No pun intended!) Did it fall in line with the often misused term in business, “ethics”? Can this be generalized and reapplied across religious institutions the world over? Did people over react, and not allow any space and respect to others with a different point of view?

Specifically speaking, what is the bigger point of contention? Is it a question of crossing the line to grab publicity or is it a question of superimposing one’s beliefs and interpretations on others?

According to a research report on Marketing of God, the term ‘spirituality’, which encompasses beliefs, social changes as well as cultures, is often decontextualized, and is often co-opted, commodified, and misused for purposes that are anything but spiritual. It took me some time to get this piece, but with the examples below, I realized the true essence of this statement. Read on…

Back home, there have been numerous cases recently wherein certain desperate attention-seekers not only disrespect others’ beliefs, force their own unto them, but also are shrewd enough to manage good publicity behind these cowardly acts. Attention of local media, rebuke by mature citizens, thoughtful debates by over-intellectual political analysts and elaborate discussions by lazy bloggers (like me) follows them and their immature acts. What emerges out of such controversies are brands like “Bajrang Dal”, “DYFI” and “Sanskriti Bachaao Manch” – I wonder then, who actually is responsible for ‘marketing’ them?

Consider this – here is the local version of the ‘hard act to follow’ – does this look similar?

Well, this is a picture, not of another God, but one of God’s Own Country – a local politician (Former Kerala PCC General Secretary Rajmohan Unnithan) was arrested few days back for “allegedly indulging in immoral activities”. Well, simply put, a woman and a man were caught together at night in the man’s house (ya, and a small piece of info – she was not his wife)!

Though the rest is open to interpretation, and anything might have happened, but then, our value-valuing political valuables barged into his house, dragged both of them out disrespectfully, and called all of this as an exposure of a ‘sex scandal’ – Brand Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI)!
And this is the state with the highest literacy rate in the country! Maybe, they should not have skipped their Moral Science classes!

Moving forward, sometimes the crimes that you do might just be notional – like thinking of immoral activities such as sex! So then the chief ministers of the states, who have the highest standards of morals, and all the time in the world, come forward and save you from these crimes!

For instance, consider this – most men (including me) would get distracted by scantily-clad women, and that’s understandable. But, now if you start getting distracted by scantily-clad Mannequins…..God save you! Well, that’s Men who are Pervert or MP state for you……No wonder, the state has the highest number of rape cases in the country registered every year – MP accounts for a shocking 15.0% of total rape cases reported in the country (and these cases exclude mannequins, by the way)!

But, for now, if God cannot help them, the chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan will – and save the citizens of MP on committing such heinous crimes, atleast on mannequins! So his followers, the saffron brigade, donning the role of moral police, asked shop owners to remove mannequins displaying women’s lingerie.
Enter Brand Sanskriti Bachao Manch!

According to an article, “We have directed shop owners of Bhopal’s posh New Market to remove dummies (mannequins) used for displaying women’s lingerie in an obscene manner within five days failing which the Sanskriti Bachao Manch workers will forcibly remove them”, Manch’s State President Chandra Shekhar Tiwari told PTI.

And more so, they believe that Ads of condoms would again distract people (they think the men might just start using them!) – Maybe the Chief Minister realizes that if not the economy, one thing that is rising sharply and has made the state proud is (not GDP but) the number of AIDS Cases in the state – Why would someone want to put a check on that, with stupid devices called Condoms! They aren’t for humans, anyways!!
(For a different perspective on the tabooed Condoms, you can refer to previous posts here)

Am sure you would are familiar with an existing brand Bajrang Dal. All this was nothing but another campaign of this brand – According to NDTV reports couple of days back,
“Members of the Sanskriti Bachao Manch, an offshoot of the BJP-affiliated Bajrang Dal, tore down condom ads saying they were against family values and ordered shopkeepers and traders dealing in lingerie to ‘not hang lingerie in public.’

Marching down the New Market area, the activists raised slogans and issued an ultimatum to the shopkeepers, giving them five days to comply or watch their wares go up in flames in a bonfire. They warned that undergarments must be boxed and kept away.

The activists were apparently inspired by Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, who had ordered the removal of the poster of a local spa in front of a girls college that showed a semi-clad woman in a chocolate bowl

”Obscene ads will not be allowed in Madhya Pradesh. I have asked concerned officers to prepare new rules that will filter out obscene material in advertising,”

So Madhya Pradesh follows Goa, which recently banned ads with bikini-clad women to promote the state as a family holiday destination (Go here for more details)

So, all men who have families – beware! Don’t even dare look at bikini-clad women – it’s against family values (when you are without family, it is ok!) 😉 Interestingly, India’s tourist state is fighting a media tag dubbing it a “destination for sex tourism” and local government has announced it will censor advertisements showing scantily-dressed women. The Chief Minister Digamber Kamat this time wants to move from a brand of “Sex Tourism” to “Clean Tourism” – Brand “Clean Tourism”!

Incidentally, both MP and Goa both figure in the top ten list of sex crimes in the country. Must say, the government there is quite focused on the core issues!

Coming back to the original question, which is the core issue here – privacy infringement or publicity stunts?
In a culture which terms itself as the 3rd world, and is conscious of still calling a “developing” nation, cultural calendars seem to be moving backwards. From clandestine talks on sex to sex education, we are now again moving to a time-zone where Sex is taboo – is this part of a progressive nation? Or are we a progressive nation with a regressive culture?

As for the publicity stunts, there is no harm in going the extra mile to grab attention, as long as you know where the boundary ends. There is always a reason for which those billboards are up there – it is precisely the reason for which such billboards are pulled down, that is why they are put up there – to remove the stigma associated with safe sex, and enable people to talk about it, and save themselves to stay ignorant! By removing the visuals, we are not only eviscerating the concept per se, but also diluting the very purpose of putting it up there!

Having said that, there IS merit to control expressions keeping in the mind the balance that needs to be maintained – if kids start associating feminism with sexuality, then you know that you are crossing the line – which is what happened in Melbourne recently, when a highly provocative billboard advertising the world’s thinnest condom was decided to pull down after creating a community uproar.

Objections that termed such acts as “sexploitation” and “sexualizing” children were raised. Such campaigns were “teaching younger girls, especially teenagers, that their purpose in life is to be a sexual object” and “This sort of highly sexual imagery is harming the development of children and teenagers,” – one can understand that this is beyond the set boundaries.

But here is a view of our objective shrewd Marketers…. “Marketing experts say although many ads are pushing the provocative boundaries, and some even go too far, they have been sexy for a while and are not necessarily getting worse. RMIT marketing senior lecturer Con Stavros said billboard ads needed to grab people’s attention in a split second and sexual images did that.” – Sexcellent point!

Sexcuse mean excuse me, although billboards that deliberately provoke the audience to gain publicity have definitely overstepped the line. – where do you draw the line between grabbing the quick attention, and getting negatively influenced? Am sure, there can be an endless discussion over this, as no one in the marketing world would have a clear answer to this

But for now, Lets save our culture – in the Name (shame?) of God – at least that’s what we all say when it starts and when it is over!

Interestingly, there was a nice line in the media reports at NDTV,
Condoms are against family values and lingerie must be kept under wraps. The Saffron moral police is out in Bhopal tearing down posters, knocking down displays and decorously offering clothes to show-window mannequins that turned up in undergarments. They warned that undergarments must be boxed and kept away.

Maybe politics coaches these moral policemen to kick on people’s bums rather than enabling them to cover them!

And here is a nation, where the “culture saviors” will do everything possible to help men not get distracted, except of course, educating the men themselves! – Goa, Madhya Pradesh, Kerala are in – who’s next? WHO do you think will truly redefine the “State of our country”? (pun intended!)

Jai Ho Indian Politics, or should I say, ….Jai “Haww” ?? 😉
Photo Links: Church Billboard, Angry Man, Mannequins, Rainbow Condom Dog, Unnithan, Condom Billboard, Chocolate Spa

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