The team at advertising agency McCann Erickson (India) Pvt. Ltd thought of many things while creating its popular ad for Chlormint chewing gum, but it never imagined that the commercial would be “offensive to cows".

Yet, in another instance that highlights a growing trend where ads run afoul of some individual, political party, religious body, or activist group, the Chlormint ad attracted the ire of the Amritsar unit of the Shiv Sena.

Cowed down: A still from the Chlormint chewing gum advertisement.

The ad shows cows being fed Chlormint and being milked for ice cream. Even a disclaimer that this was a “symbolic representation" didn’t seem to render it immune to the but-it’s-offensive-to-us problem.

Statutory disclaimers on financial products, alcoholic drinks and tobacco aren’t new; nor are disclaimers on ads featuring dangerous stunts performed by experts (because some unenlightened person in some corner of India could try to do the same thing with disastrous consequences that can result in bad press and legal action for the advertiser).

Still, much like McCann and its client and owner of the Chlormint brand, Perfetti Van Melle India Pvt. Ltd, many ad agencies and companies are choosing to insert disclaimers and caveats in commercials even when they are not required to do so by law—sometimes to state the obvious.

Strange as the trend may be, it can be explained by the number of complaints against ads. A few years ago, India’s advertising watchdog used to receive around 20 complaints against a dozen ads each month. It now receives more than 200 against around 20 ads, largely from “consumers who may find an ad misleading or offensive" according to Alan Collaco, secretary general of the Advertising Standards Council of India.

Ad agencies themselves are not happy. Executives say companies are becoming more conservative about the kind of advertising they put out.

“Clients just don’t want to take that risk. You spend months researching an insight, six-eight weeks developing a TV commercial, Rs50 lakh to Rs1 crore shooting it, not to mention the manpower and resources involved. If you have to withdraw it in three days, you can imagine the kind of business loss it would lead to," said K.V. Sridhar, national creative director at Leo Burnett India. “The charm is gone, it really crops your imagination."

Many agencies have stopped using animals in ads, said Sridhar, because of legal worries and protests from animal rights groups.

“They even have a problem when you use animation…," he added, citing the example of an Alpenliebe candy commercial that upset an animal rights group. The ad showed a digitally created crocodile following actor Kajol for the candy. The group protested saying zoo authorities had recorded cases of children flinging candy at real crocodiles in the hope that they would follow them home. Animal activists even got Ogilvy and Mather India to insert a disclaimer in an ad for the confectionary brand Mentos that used animations of a donkey and a chimpanzee. The disclaimer reads: “Donkeys are not intended to be working animals."

Even mundane ads that would have once been considered non-controversial are now replete with disclaimers.

“Earlier, there was no need for overt self-evident facts to be stated in the communication. But given the challenges (brands are faced with) today, it has become necessary (to add disclaimers)," said Shubhajit Sen, executive vice-president (marketing) at GlaxoSmithKline Consumer Healthcare Ltd (GSKCH), which markets Horlicks.

GSKCH’s ad for Horlicks Foodles, a brand of “nourishing noodles", carries a disclaimer that says the product is “nourishing vs other regular instant noodles" and “when eaten one-two times per week as part of a balanced diet".

“To our mind, it is self-evident that you should not give your child large quantities of packaged food very frequently," said Sen. “But it may not be self-evident to a consumer and we don’t want any scope of confusion on our viewpoint."

Even the tagline for Horlicks Foodles—Noodles without the no—comes with a disclaimer: “Creative expression of the brand name".

Sen said the company involves its legal and research and development teams all through the process of creating the ad.

Prasoon Joshi, executive chairman of McCann Erickson India, said the trend could spell the doom of creative advertising. “You can’t insert a disclaimer into everything. Where will it stop? Where do you draw the line?" he asked.