Surrogate advertisement is frowned upon by discerning viewers. And even when it is not the case, creative licence can border on being vice

What do these Malayalam movies — Mamootty’s Johnnie Walker (1992), Jagathy Sreekumar’s Peter Scott (1995), multi-starrer Christian Brothers (2005), and Lal Junior’s debut movie Honey Bee Its Tripping — have in common? The titles seem to be inspired by popular liquor brands, raising the question whether these films are ending up as surrogate advertisements.

Director-turned-actor and producer Lal, whose son Jean Paul Lal is making his directorial debut in Honey Bee, said the movie was about friendship and love. “It has nothing to do with the liquor brand. The film is basically a love story narrated in a different way,” he said.

Siby Thottupuram, producer of the movie, and managing director of SJM Entertainments, also said they had no tie-up with the liquor brand to endorse the product in the movie.

Surrogate advertising is the art of using a brand or product message surreptitiously inside an advertisement for another brand or product. There are a host of reasons why companies use surrogate advertising. One of them is to circumvent a ban on direct advertisements of particular products as in case of liquor and tobacco.

The story of the movie had nothing to do with the liquor brand, said T.P. Madhukumar, Regional Censor Officer (Kerala). “The movie does not endorse the product or even the style and font of the liquor brand. It’s a social story,” he said.

Mr. Madhukumar said promotion of liquor brands is not permitted through movies. “Disclaimers should also be shown for scenes depicting consumption of liquor,” he said.

John Paul, noted script writer, said it was permissible if your creation justifies the title. “You have to just look at whether the title blends with the theme of the movie. Otherwise, it could be included among several other stupidities in a creative work. Viewers could always analyse whether the title is linked to the content of the movie. It the work fails to show justice, we could always condemn it,” he said.

Sibi Malayil, popular film director, said he wanted to name one of his projects ‘Fair and Lovely’, as it was a love story and the title echoed the character of the heroine. “I had plans to work out a commercial branding with the manufacturers. But the project failed to take off. There is nothing wrong, if the branding benefits the producer of the movie. But the filmmaker could always decide whether he is promoting a brand having a positive image in the market through his work,” he said.

The director recalled the example of the endorsement of a leading jewellery chain in the movie Diamond Necklace (directed by Lal Jose). “Here the branding could be justified, as the necklace plays a key role in the narration. As a filmmaker, my effort would be to ensure that promotion of a brand happens only if it justifies the story of the movie,” he said.

Dominic Savio, vice-president and Kerala head of Mudra, said such cases do not amount to surrogate advertisement. “It depends on how you look at it. Kerala is a highly opinionated State. The print and television media here enjoys about 91 per cent reach. Eight-four per cent of the male population reads and listens to news published in newspapers and broadcast through television. People like to debate everything,” he said.

As per the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) code, visual content of the advertisement must depict only the product being advertised and not the prohibited or restricted product in any form or manner.

No advertisement shall be permitted in print, electronic and outside media that promotes directly or indirectly, sale or consumption of cigarettes, tobacco products, wine, alcohol or liquor according to the Cable Television Networks Rules, 1994.

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