The Information and Broadcasting Ministry on Monday restricted cable television networks from airing condom commercials that are “indecent or inappropriate” during the day so that children do not watch them. It is not clear from the wording of the ministry’s advisory whether this implies that no condom advertisement will be aired during the day or only those considered inappropriate.
Amit Katoch, director of broadcasting contents in the ministry and the officer who signed the advisory, declined to clarify and directed Scroll.in to his superiors.
Shweta Purandare of the Advertising Standards Council of India said the body had nothing to do with the ban. “We have not asked for any ban on advertisements,” she said. “Our consumer complaints department had received complaints, but when we looked at the content, we did not see anything objectionable. But complainants were upset that these ads were shown in a family viewing time so we said the [ministry] is in the best position to advise broadcasters.”
In the advisory, the ministry cites the Cable Television Network Rules of 1994, which prohibits the airing of advertisements that “endanger the safety of children or create in them any interest in unhealthy sexual practices”.
The advisory reads, “In view of the above, all TV channels are hereby advised not to telecast the advertisements of condoms which are for a particular age group and could be indecent or inappropriate for viewing by children.”
But Mohan Rao, professor at the Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, said that the decision would prove counterproductive. “This is antithetical to the goals of public health especially at a time when data seems to indicate condom use is declining and there is a need to increase it substantially,” Rao said “All non-permanent methods of contraception should be encouraged and there should be more research on diaphragms and female condoms and a push to promote these. Instead, to have this is really quite shocking.”
According to health ministry data, condom use declined 52% over the eight years to 2016.
Commentators also raised questions about the impact of the ban on the fight against HIV/AIDS, including the government’s own campaign.
Condoms off colour
People in India are squeamish about even the suggestion of sex being televised. In June 2014, Dr Harsh Vardhan, who was Union health minister at the time, said the thrust of the campaign against AIDS should not be on condom use as it sent the message that sexual relationships outside marriage were acceptable as long as individuals used protection.
A year later, Barkha Singh, former head of the Delhi Commission for Women, claimed that an advertisement campaign series for Manforce condoms that featured actor Sunny Leone “[served] immorality and bad practice to the audience of the country which is not acceptable in a country of moral values, ethics, religious values and spiritualism renowned as abode of gods around the globe”.
Speaking about the same commercial, Communist Party of India leader Atul Kumar Anjan said that such sexually explicit advertisements would encourage men to commit sexual violence.
The ministry has reportedly been considering this ban since 2015, when reports emerged that several individuals, including politicians, had objected to increasingly sexualised condom advertisements that depicted individuals having sex for pleasure, instead of using condoms only to prevent sexually transmitted diseases or for family planning.
Yet, as Poonam Muttreja, executive director of the non-governmental organisation Population Foundation of India, pointed out, the government does in fact promote condoms through its own advertisements. It is unclear whether these will also be affected by the ministry’s advisory.
“If there is a problem with an ad, then maybe that ad should be dealt with or reviewed,” Mutreja said, recommending that the health ministry and the information ministry work together to inform young people about sexual and reproductive health, particularly before they become sexually active.
Most government advertisements promoting condoms are tamer than the Manforce series, focusing on health and prevention instead of sexuality.
People had lauded a 2010 commercial campaign for Nirodh, a government brand of condoms, simply for showing people using condoms outside marital confines.
Another government campaign that ran in Andhra Pradesh was far more explicit, though not suggestive, about sex and why people should use condoms, particularly if they have multiple sexual partners or engage in homosexual sex.
Dr Sam Prasad, country programme director of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, described the the action taken by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting as retrograde.
In rural areas, television is still the most effective medium for mass communication. “If we cannot use television effectively, how do we percolate the message down to the masses?” Prasad asked. “To attract young people, companies design raunchy advertisement campaigns. But we need to have such campaigns to ensure that people are attracted to the message. It should become part of conversations with families. Otherwise, pornography is the only teacher.”
Prasad spoke of very young people contracting HIV. He said the non-profit had tested 118 youngsters between the ages of 18 and 22 years during the Delhi International Queer Theatre and Film Festival on December 9 and December 10 and four had tested positive. All four admitted to having multiple sexual partners, he said.
A study on the incidence of abortion and unintended pregnancy in India in 2015 showed that 48% of the 48.1 million pregnancies that year were unintended.