Controversial Tobacco Ad Pulled Following Public Outrage

a-mild mula-mula

PT HM Sampoerna today released a statement regarding its controversial billboard cigarette ad that the company put up across the country recently. The ad, which has been suggested to carry a sexual undertone, received heavy criticism on social media and led to a petition to take them down. The company has agreed to cease the campaign.

The release, signed by Elvira Lianita, Head of Regulatory Affairs, International Trade & Communications PT HM Sampoerna Tbk reads, “PT HM Sampoerna Tbk. (Sampoerna) highly appreciates and thanks all of the input and criticisms conveyed regarding one of the Sampoerna A Mild advertising which was recently published. With the above consideration, we have decided to take down and cease the publication of the advertisement as of today, 6 January 2015”.

The ad for A-Mild which shows a male and female couple with the text, “mula-mula malu-malu lama-lama mau” or “shy at first but willing eventually” carries what can easily be construed as a sexually suggestive message, on top of the fact that the brand’s tagline is “Go Ahead”, which sends an even more permissive message to consumers.

According to Indonesian advertising ethics, released by the Indonesian Advertising Council, under Chapter III.A section 2.2, tobacco advertising cannot be placed on media where the primary audience is under 18, must not persuade people to smoke, depict or suggest that smoking carries a health benefit or not pose a danger to health. Tobacco advertising also must not include any reference to cigarettes, cigarette wrapper, box, container, or in anyway suggest that a person is smoking or about to smoke. Tobacco ads cannot be aimed at children, teens, or pregnant women, mention the fact that they’re ads for cigarette products. The ads must carry a statement on the dangers of smoking as per applicable laws.

Section 1.26 of the same document states that advertising cannot exploit eroticism or sexuality in any way or form.

Strictly speaking, the ad does not actually violate any of the relevant sections in the ethical guidelines. According to FX. Ridwan Handoyo, head of the advertising supervisory board of the Indonesian advertising association, the ad may not explicitly violate the guidelines but the ethics board does take into account public opinion and input and in this case, the public does not wish the ad to be displayed.

“Advertising clearly is a communications material such that it is full of nuances and perceptions”, Ridwan said. He also said that advertising ethics exist so that the message that an ad tries to convey does not clash with public perception.

Despite the intention of the ad, it’s not difficult to see that it can easily evoke a sexual perception which implies eventual willingness of a female to agree to a man’s persuasions and it may be difficult for Sampoerna or its agency to deny that and its implications to something that may essentially constitute as rape.

In a culture where sensuality, sexuality, and pre-marital relationships can trigger heated public debate, ads like this would almost always cause a strong public reaction even if they’re entirely within the published ethical guidelines.

As Sampoerna has decided to pull the ad following a public outrage and a strongly worded petition which received nearly 5500 signatories in 24 hours, the debate over its appropriateness may subside relatively quickly but it will nonetheless serve as an example in future discussions about advertising ethics.

[header image from Ridwan Handoyo]

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Aulia Masna

Pretty much anything you want to do in life involves a pitch, so why not dig deeper into the world where everything hinges on the pitch? Advertising is not just an industry, it's a lifeline of many industries. See it, love it, hate it, embrace it, criticize it, do it.

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