To Mask Or Not To Mask? That Is The Question

Anant Rangaswami, May 16, 2020

“As we get back to work, should our advertising show people with masks, social distancing, etc.?"

Pratap Suthan (Pat to older people like me) floated this on twitter:

“As we get back to work, should our advtg/films show people with masks, social distancing, etc.? Or do we play out the pre-covid days? Our old work isn’t covid-proof, and our new films also can’t be shot with people minus precautions. There may be legal implications.”

Pat tagged The Ad Club in the tweet, and, at the time of my writing this, The Ad Club hadn’t acknowledged his tweet, let alone responded to it.

They should do both.

I thought I’d try and answer Pat’s questions and I invite anyone else with a point of view to add the point of view.

I’ll get rid of the production issue first, because it’s much simpler to address.

I would think that doing anything today that does not conform to the government’s safe distancing guidelines and mask guidelines is certainly breaking the law.

Even worse, I’m not even sure that you are allowed to shoot currently, as advertising is not among the industries listed as essential and has not been cleared to resume, even partially.

But even if the industry was allowed to resume, I see no reason why the same rules on safe distancing that are applicable to say, a car manufacturer, should not apply to production of television commercials or to photo shoots or to the production of jingles.

When these guidelines cease to exist for all other industries, they automatically would cease to exist for all advertising-related activity.

The bigger and more thought-provoking issue is how to represent the post-covid world in communication.

Should scripts reflect the current covid-guideline-ruled world or the world before that?

To illustrate, should a commercial made TODAY show, for example, crowds at a concert or cricket match? Should they show protagonists (indeed all the characters in the commercial) wearing masks? Should the distance between each character be at least six feet?

This is the issue that is very hazy.

The Advertising Standards Council of India, from time to time, decides and announces what is kosher and what is not in communication – and I think this is an issue for ASCI, rather than The Ad Club, to discuss and decide on.

My own view is that the ruling should be a guideline rather than a diktat.

Because the distancing and mask rules are TEMPORARY (at least one hopes they are), the advertising need not be forced to reflect the temporary (as opposed to permanent) life-style.

Not being allowed to smoke in offices or aircraft, for example, is a PERMANENT rule-based lifestyle. Driving a car without a seatbelt is a PERMANENT as opposed to temporary lifestyle. No ad should show smoking in offices or drivers without seatbelts.

I do not think that a similar sensitivity is called for regarding masks and distancing. A few weeks from now, or a few months from now, masks could be optional – as could social distancing.

We might still see many wearing masks for the rest of their lives, and distancing themselves from others – but these will be done by choice.

It would be up to writers and directors to see how to create the story.  Covid-proofing or not should be a decision that they are free to take, much as they decide on the cast or the location or the props.

Advertising has always attempted to reflect popular culture and has always been forced to follow the law.

One is a choice, one isn’t.

Pat, I hope this helps.

And ASCI, your opinion has more heft and value than mine, so please jump in.

Because mine is just an opinion, your opinion becomes a guideline that agencies and marketers have literally sworn to respect.