On Monday, India's Ministry of Information and Broadcasting issued an advisory to the country's 857 television channels requiring them to immediately cease airing condom commercials between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. The statement prohibits "advertisements of condoms which are for a particular age group and could be indecent/inappropriate for viewing by children."
On Tuesday, the second-most populous nation in the world woke to headlines like "Govt bans condom ads from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. because they are 'indecent'" and "Ban on condom ads symptom of schizophrenia over sexuality, morality."
Online outrage was immediate, with netizens lampooning the ban, the timing and the moral policing. One site satirized the news, thanking the government for saving Indian culture. A tweeter noted that showing racy condom ads after 10 p.m. would be counterproductive, because people would be having unprotected sex, not watching TV, by then.
But there are supporters of the ban. Some said watching condom ads with family during prime time — such as a recent one starring Bollywood actress Sunny Leone and a male companion, who begin to disrobe for a tryst — is embarrassing. And others agree it's best to protect children from exposure to this manner of "vulgar" programming. The YouTube video (below) is described as an "Age-restricted video (based on Community Guidelines)."
But the general response is of alarm – not just about censorship and a chilling effect on creative advertising — but also about India's exploding population. Data projections indicate that India, with an estimated population of 1.32 billion, is poised to have 1.7 billion citizens by 2050, overtaking China. Contraception — particularly condom usage — is falling, according to official figures from the latest National Family Health Survey, which covers the years 2015 and 2016.
"Most of the projected population growth will occur in the very poorest areas of India," says Robert Walker, president of the Population Institute, an international nonprofit that promotes family planning. "Unless fertility rates fall faster than now projected in those areas, it will be difficult to make much progress in reducing severe poverty. The projected population growth will also put severe pressure on the environment and intensify concerns about water scarcity."
The National Family Health Survey also indicates that condom use has dropped drastically, at least where population control is measured by the authorities. The government distributed 660 million condoms in the years 2008 and 2009; last year, fewer than half that number were distributed.
More than 70 percent of India's 234 million households have cable TV. But there is no data linking access to televisions and the Internet to more frequent condom usage. Neither is there any link between education and safe sex. In the southern coastal state of Kerala, where male literacy is over 90 percent, condom usage dropped 42 percent between 2008 and 2016.
The government's advisory came on the recommendation of the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), a self-regulatory organization that monitors "fair, sound, ethical and healthy principles and practices of advertising content," after it received hundreds of complaints, per a statement released Friday.
The advisory is not a blanket ban on all condom ads, clarified Shweta Purandare, the secretary-general of ASCI. "Educational messaging is not prohibited. Only those ads that are not appropriate for family viewing time."
What this means, she acknowledges, is that all condom ads currently being broadcast have to be taken off the air.
"These ads are not about sex education, family planning or preventing HIV. They are full of sexual innuendos, therefore we recommended a watershed timing. During the day, ads can be subtle or tasteful. They don't have to be crass," she says.
Until 1991, condom and contraception ads on television and radio were educational and bland. That changed with a now-infamous commercial for KamaSutra brand condoms, which showed a young woman showering to a sexy musical score. Since then, condom ads have heavily employed what ASCI calls "sexual titillation," even though they're pretty tame by Western standards.
So unless the early bland ads make a comeback, Indian television remains stripped of condom ads.
Chhavi Sachdev is a journalist based in Mumbai. Contact her @chhavi