Is self-regulation in media a farce?

Monday, 30 December 2013 - 11:19am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: DNA

In my growing up years, advertising was watched as much for entertainment as for the information it disseminated to the consumers. I remember I used to believe all claims the brand promised it could deliver. So I switched to a popular malt food drink which could give me both ‘tan ki shakti and mann ki shakti’. I liked the super intelligent Lalitaji who could make mathematics look so simple while talking on a subject as banal as detergent powder. In short, advertising inspired me.

Even the serials of those days were inspiring and I can recount Udaan where women like Kavita Chaudhury became my role model. Similar were characters like Lajoji and Sheranwali from Buniyaad and Badki from Hum Log who inspired a generation of girls like me.

Look at where we are in 2013. Almost all serials show women in roles that are not aspirational. In an advertisement for a brand of pizza owned by a multi national company, a father tempts his 5 year old child to have a pizza. A man in a popular deodorant ad sees a beautiful woman in a pub and says ‘taken’. Kareena Kapoor calls herself ‘tandoori murgi’ good enough to wash down with alcohol in the Fevicol item song. And the very recent utterings from a well-known singer who is also a doctor, first wondered why IIT campuses always have a dearth of beautiful women, then immediately reassured the male IIT students that they shall all end up getting life partners who shall not only be beautiful but shall also feed them rotis.

Self-regulation is conspicuous by its absence. Everyone claims that self-regulation is the best regulation. Everybody claims they are aware of what their limits are. But nobody seems to exercise it well – whether it is an individual or an institution, general entertainment channels or news channels, advertising or films.

One does not know if awareness of self-regulation comes with an understanding of what really must be regulated. In most of these cases above, I am certain that quite a few of us do not even know if the thing portrayed needed regulation in the first place.  The fact that the Mood Indigo incident had many claiming that too much is being made out of a small incident, itself shows that not many actually understood what was so wrong with what the good doctor said.

Self-regulation is, doubtless, the best solution, but unfortunately, it has failed miserably. There are many celebrities who understand the extent of their influence on the masses and act responsibly.

But some like Kareena only see it as a ‘clean’ item number as she was not twerking provocatively.

The words in the song, however, reinforce the already abominable gender stereotypes that the lady should have refused. The question here is, did she even think of raising an objection?

When it comes to broadcasters, generally they argue that viewers are the best judges. Viewers’ choice is important, of course, but not ultimate. As a viewer, I made a choice to watch and be inspired by Udaan while there were other great serials like Star Trek, Karamchand etc that were also televised at the time. A viewer chooses from amongst the fare s/he is provided. Imagine if everything that is shown is as plebian as today’s daily soaps, appealing to the lowest common denominator in an attempt to get TRPs – we are bound to end up morally and creatively a bankrupt society that valorises trivialities of life.

Some argue that art imitates life and they are merely portraying what they see in real life on reel life – even if they are the trivial things that make life. Those who take recourse in this justification are merely trying to hide their creative inadequacies. If patriotism is the last resort of a scoundrel, imitating life in the name of creativity may be another for the unimaginative.

When did a health-conscious parent ever tempt his child with junk food like pizza, especially when the child herself is unwilling? When in real life does a self-respecting woman announce she is meat for the lascivious male gaze?

Mass media is a powerful tool in one’s hands. One can shape the thinking of a society with inspiring ideas and oeuvres. Merely by showing a slice of real life without a modicum of creative thinking or ingenuity is perhaps doing a disservice not only to their work of art but also to the society at large.

General entertainers – advertising, television or films may perhaps be the biggest unimaginative and irresponsible scoundrels when they refuse to self regulate, unwittingly reinforce stereotypes and do not produce creative works of art. They often fall prey to formulas that may have worked in the past. They must remember that great power when misused grossly, becomes a grave irresponsibility.

Are our broadcaster, movie producer and marketer friends listening?

(The writer is managing consultant of The Key Consumer Diagnostics Pvt Ltd, a Mumbai-based qualitative research company)

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