Mumbai: In a bid to contain the damage caused by controversial ads for auto maker Ford Motor Co.’s India unit, JWT India late on Tuesday evening asked its chief creative officer and managing partner Bobby Pawar as well as Vijay Simha Vellanki, creative director at Blue Hive, a WPP unit dedicated to managing the Ford business, to resign.
A few days ago, controversial ads featuring caricatures of international personalities such as socialite Paris Hilton, former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and former Formula One driver Michael Schumacher were posted on adsoftheworld.com (AotW) by the JWT India creative team, apparently for consumption by other professionals.
The “scam ads”—or ads that are created primarily with the intention of winning awards and bolstering portfolios—had not been released on any mass media, but created a storm on social networking sites such as Twitter and later on media sites as viewed picked up the links from AotW. Viewers criticized the ads for their inappropriate visuals, some labelling them “sexist”.
The ads were uploaded for public viewing at a time when the Union government has passed stricter anti-rape laws following the uproar over crimes against women, especially the brutal gang-rape of a young woman in Delhi that drew worldwide attention.
One ad in particular that attracted much criticism showed Berlusconi driving a Ford Figo with three women bound and gagged in the boot. The former Italian prime minister has previously been in the news for charges that he had consorted with an underage prostitute and for being involved in a sex scandal.
Another ad other showed Hilton, with what seem to be caricatures of socialite Kim Kardashian and her sisters, also bound and gagged in the boot of the car.
The ads carry the tagline “Leave your worries behind” to highlight the Figo’s extra large boot.
Ford India issued a statement to the media saying, “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.”
The disciplinary action refers to JWT India’s decision to sack Pawar and Vellanki. Pawar could not be reached for comment.
The agency also issued a statement. “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.”
Globally, Ford is one of JWT’s biggest accounts, worth $2 billion annually. Interestingly, these “scam ads” had been sent in as entries to the annual Abby Awards this year. All entries need clearance and verification from both the client and the agency, and must be published in at least one newspaper, website, television channel and radio.
Prathap Suthan, chief creative officer and managing partner, Bang In the Middle, who maintained that he had been in a similar position a few years ago when some unreleased work made its way online, said that while the global standing of the Ford-JWT relationship was back on track, the fact that the agency sacked its glory hunters was not good news. “JWT obviously showed great spine by not tolerating nonsense. But what about consequences?” he asked. “Who will replace Bobby fully knowing that it’s the same agency that sacrificed the CCO to please a client and a network? Why wasn’t there a collective sharing of the goof? Aren’t the suits who run the agency part of the same team? ...Who signed the entries and the cheques that went to GoaFest?” he asked.
Pawar had joined JWT India in 2011 to lead the creative team, following the exit of then national creative director Agnello Dias, who had moved on to set up Taproot India.
The ads, which have not been released in the media, managed to rake in much unwanted publicity for both the agency and the brand. The fact that they are functioning in a changed media environment, experts say, calls for more responsibility and caution.
On his blog, Ivan Raszl, founder of adsoftheworld.com, maintained that this wasn’t the first time a controversial ad was being posted on his site and neither would it be the last. “The world is becoming increasingly smaller. If you post something publicly on the Internet, it can be replicated in a very short amount of time. Mass media picks up stories from social media and blogs. Once something is out, it’s impossible to contain it. Think twice about how your ad will be perceived in different cultures of the world. Turn this phenomena to your advantage,” he wrote.