by Jyoti Gupta
Department of Sociology
University of Delhi, India 

In the present time, no matter where and by which means you travel the world, advertisements are a common sight. From big hoardings to wall paintings, cosmetics to agricultural products and photographs to line drawings, advertisements are widespread across genres, product categories and styles. Some are made for promotional purposes while some aim to inform people on the evils in society or are made to create a ‘social good’. It is the latter that I delve into for my research project, in order to find answers to the following two questions- first, why and how a particular category of advertisements acquires the prefix ‘social’? Second, does the production process of these advertisements contribute to the making of this category? Following the work of Bruno Latour, I wish to explore the making of this ‘social’ category.

The government of India launches many public service campaigns but I specifically focus on the health sector for many reasons. First of all, the majority of public service campaigns belong to this sector, so it provides me with many options. Secondly, the idea of social advertisement was first introduced in the health sector. Thirdly, my own work experience in the rural health sector was thought to be helpful in understanding the conceptualization and making of the advertisements. I have followed two government run national programmes where one offers a great range of advertisements across media and other persuades audience via emotional engagements by referring to culture and relationships. Certainly a lot depends on the issue/subject regarding which change is to be promoted. Approach for a malaria and HIV campaign would differ.

The reason behind focusing on rural India is that the most of these programmes are primarily made for the rural illiterate or semi-literate population. Consequently, visuals become the primary object of the study. However, it is not the final visual advertisement that I am looking at, but the processes of making these visuals under selected health programmes. For example one of the visuals on how malaria spreads via mosquito bite, there was no other way for the creators but to show mosquito bite, the entering of parasite and its interaction with the blood cells and so on. The visuals on the interaction were however made very simplistically but still not very easy to decipher for the targeted population. Certain suggestions were taken during the pre-test but the visuals remain moreover the same. This presented me with one of the most challenging aspect in visual communication that is the distinct nature of ‘visual literacy’. All of us are exposed to a particular gamut of visuals signs and representations. Creators who are mostly aware of universal systems of education and have read science text books drew it accordingly but in all possible simplistic way. However, the population that have not completed secondary education or have not ever gone to school perhaps would draw the same very differently. Nevertheless one cannot go with the local version of representation realizing that there were still be differences across populations. This leaves us with a question: there can be a universal system of representation for scientific or technical information even for the illiterate population?

Earlier researches in the discipline of sociology and anthropology have studied commercial advertisements but none have researched the ‘process of making’. For example, William Mazzarella’s research at LINTAS, one of the leading advertisement agencies, mainly dealt with the global and political issues that guided the making of profit oriented product advertisements. My research argues that it is different to study something as a process, given the uncertainty of the upcoming steps to be followed. Even when plans are made in advance, those are never executed completely. Some decisions are made on the spot, some delayed and bring something totally unexpected into the picture; and some issues are left undecided. The study of a finished product in some way provides a well formed and guided narrative to be read and talked about. It omits or at least reduces the other possible stories. For a sociologist, studying a process is like unfolding a story that provides a rich understanding of where individual, organizational, political and global interests provide support or interfere. Studying an ongoing process provides me with the opportunity to understand the production process in detail while observing both micro and macro level ideologies existing from the perspective of the practitioners working in this sector. This study argues that any decision that is taken or any gap that exists between planning and execution in the making of an advertisement does not necessarily follow a pattern. Many factors contribute to this process such as timeline, hierarchy, goodwill, future plans and availability of resources, to name a few. While my focus was to observe the work process, I figured out that the concept of creativity is considerably an issue for discussion. As an example, I was asked in one of the field sites if I was creative. I did not know what to say in answer and another employee said yes she makes very good paintings and cards. Creative here was seen in relation to having an eye for aesthetics and art skills, however my respondents saw it differently e.g. an advertising professional explained creativity as thinking out of the box while still maintaining simplicity, for an art designer it was knowing one’s medium well enough to mould it accordingly, and for a creative head working for social development creativity had to do with reaching the target audience straight and simple. The understanding of creativity amongst the creators of social ads was a mixture of how it was seen by the advertisement and the art world.

Almost all big advertisement agencies now have a separate wing for making this specialized set of advertisements aiming at a ‘social good’. These are called social advertisements because of their focus on welfare subjects and persuasion to bring change into their target audiences’ habits and choices. However, the government and non-governmental organizations prefer to put these media under the categories of social messaging, social communication, IEC (Information, Education and Communication) and BCC (Behaviour Change Communication) material; advertisements for them is just one section of a whole range of communication media. For most of the public service campaigns or programmes, each of these organizations contributes in some way or the other. Therefore, all of them became informants in my research. I also found that there is not one clear definition of social advertisement that is agreed upon by all actors working in the sector. They all follow different ideologies and concepts but a common thread that connects them all is the idea of doing ‘wellbeing’ for the society; disseminating ideas (and services) for a ‘social good’ and ‘not for profit’. Nevertheless, one can always ask where a soap advertisement would fall; it is to earn profit from selling of soap while the product will also promote hygiene. Hence, I too end with not having a clear cut differentiation of the two. Perhaps it is equal to defining morality.

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