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Big Brother is Watching


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Though the Advertising Standards Council of India is more stringent now, small advertisers continue to flout its code. While the Ministry of I&B recently issued an advisory in its favour to ensure more compliance, other entities such as the Department of Consumer Affairs are apparently in favour of government regulation of ads. Should the industry be wary? Are the constituents of the self-regulation regime listening?


By Simran Sabherwal and Saloni Dutta


“Which treatment makes filmstars fair?” Well, ‘if you wanted to know the secret to becoming fair, beautiful and smart’, all you needed to do, until recently, was watch the teleshopping ad for Fairpro, with several prominent film stars endorsing it. Despite the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI)’s increased vigilance, such ads still get telecast and printed in newspapers across the country. The Ministry for Information and Broadcasting (MIB) recently ordered broadcasters not to air the ad in question along with other teleshopping advertisements that are violating the ASCI code and not complying with the decision of its Consumer Complaints Council (CCC). Unsubstantiated claims by these advertisers – including a few big names - also raises doubts about the level of self-regulation in the advertising industry, and whether it should worry about the prospect of government regulation of ads.


According to sources, there are two lobbies in the government – one, the I&B Ministry, which is pro-ASCI and self-regulation; the other one being the Department of Consumer Affairs, which wants the government to regulate advertising.


Is Self-Regulation the Best Regulation?

While the industry bats for self-regulation, it’s hard not to miss the many advertisements that make unsubstantiated claims ranging from getting slim in 15 days to growing strong hair after using a particular shampoo to getting a job by studying in a particular educational institution. These are just some of the examples of how seriously we take our advertising and live up to the motto of delivering the best brand promise to customers. While the issue of regulation has been a topic of many media discussions over the years, the question that needs to be asked is, why do so many violations still occur? A point to be noted here is that some large advertisers are repeat offenders. While it can be argued that as these companies have a large portfolio and run multiple campaigns, it is inevitable that they inadvertently and unintentionally cross the line. However, this again begs the question that with multiple checkpoints, how is it that large advertisers still manage to regularly make their way on ASCI’s list, even if it is for minor indiscretions?


Sunil Lulla, CMD, Grey Group India who is also a member of ASCI’s CCC says, “Over time. companies have got smarter and the same mistakes are not happening twice. There are new mistakes or there are new violations. Also, the guidelines have become more strict and people are more aware of issues.” Adds Ashish Bhasin, Chairman & CEO South Asia, Dentsu Aegis Network, “Whenever the violations happen, it’s a bit like a cat and mouse game. Rules of self-regulation are brought in and then somebody else comes in and tries to change them, or exploit them. So it is really the big challenge of controlling that process.”


On the other hand, the industry does feel that the ASCI Secretariat has become more vigilant and this is a positive sign. For starters, while ASCI received just about 200 complaints annually a couple of years ago, this number has jumped ten-fold today. The CCC, which met monthly, now meets on a weekly basis and the complaint time has come down to 12 days from 45 days earlier. As the standards go up, more things will come under scrutiny and the reportage also increases as the process becomes more transparent. Says Srinivasan Swamy, Chairman of RK Swamy BBDO, “At the moment, ASCI is respected for bringing about quick decisions. If they are not complied with, they quickly report it to the authorities which ensure compliance as TV channels then take the offender off the air.” Instead of waiting for complaints like earlier, ASCI now monitors and picks up ads, playing watchdog to the hilt. On behalf of ASCI, TAM also monitors ads and collects data, picking up Print ads which don’t follow guidelines.


ASCI is seen to be doing a good job, with almost 90% compliance with its decisions from broadcasters. But is this industry self-regulatory body good enough with the support and backing it gets from the MIB, or do we need a stronger body with punitive powers in place to check the violations that still happen? Shweta Purandare, Secretary General, ASCI, says that though ASCI has no punitive powers, most of its decisions are complied with. She adds that being a self-regulatory body, ASCI expects advertisers to advertise more responsibly. In case of non-compliance from advertisers, ASCI approaches MIB on an intermittent basis.


Ramesh Chembath, Associate Vice President, Marketing, Godrej Appliances believes that it is also important that ASCI should pay attention to the kind of complaints it receives and who is the complainant. He adds, “ASCI is doing a fantastic job, but at times, it has taken up frivolous complaints. It can decide not to entertain such complaints. You should have a very strong appeal process and be given the opportunity to sit across and explain to the committee- this is what we are doing and our interpretation.” Some marketers even believe that their competition is behind the complaints against their ads made to ASCI.


Television Vs Digital & Print

The compliance rate is high for advertisers on TV, primarily on account of the advertising code being part of the Cable Television Networks Act (CTN). Whenever there is a regulation advisory, the big advertisers jump up and comply, but the real challenge comes while monitoring ads in Print and the Digital platform. Says Lulla, “The way the Television Cable and Satellite Act is written, TV channels have to follow ASCI. It is not the same for Print or Internet and frankly that is what worries me because a large part of Print and the Internet goes off scot free. Most violations happen there; they don’t happen on Television.”


What makes the implementation even more difficult is small advertisers who are not members of ASCI and do not adhere to its code. In contrast, mature advertisers understand the guidelines. ASCI has been working with the Indian Newspaper Society (INS) and even the Press Council of India to formulate guidelines, but there are still loopholes when it comes to implementation. Purandare says that this violation is under scrutiny by the Department of Consumer Affairs, which is mulling whether a law on the lines of the Cable Act is necessary to stop this. Some experts say that even Print compliance is fairly high, about 70% a year ago, but because the base has gone up, the compliance ratio has come down. As for digital, it is difficult to differentiate between brand and user content, but efforts are on to keep a check.


While all upheld decisions in the Television space are relayed to the Indian Broadcasting Foundation (IBF), which in turn informs its members, non-compliance exists, particularly among teleshoppers. According to Purandare, “In many cases of teleshopping, some advertisers and broadcasters are not members of IBF. Hence, IBF doesn’t come into the picture. Recently, when the teleshopping advisory went out, IBF immediately alerted all its members. When asked about non-compliance by some channels, they said they are not our members.”      


Whose Responsibility is it?

While the main focus is on advertisers, the other stakeholders - creative agencies, media agencies and the media carrying the ads are all to be held equally responsible for implementing self-regulation. With revenues at stake, it falls on the revenue heads of the newspaper or TV channel whether to accept these ads and be held responsible for the communication. Says Avinash Pandey, Chief Revenue Officer, MCCS & COO, ABP News, “Just because they generate revenue, TV channels should not show products and services that are not in good taste. Ad sales people should keep in mind what kind of advertising they accept. Though teleshopping forms a part of content and also contributes to revenue, I will never accept anything that violates the ethics code.”


For an advertisement on air, most often the objectionable shot is removed or supers imposed as per specifications, but from a planning perspective, a small change in creative content does not make that much of a difference on the media plan. But, when something is taken off air, they have to try to work out with the concerned channel how best to extricate it. Most believe that the loss of revenue is of less importance if there is something which benefits the industry and it is the right thing to be done.


Speaking on who should ensure self-regulation, Amarjit Batra, CEO, OLX.in, says, “Self-regulation is critical at each level. First of all, the brand should be responsible enough to understand the difference between what is right and what is not. But if the brand somehow misses the point of view, then it’s the job of the creative agency to put a stop to it. But if both of them fail to do that, it is the job of the media agency because that is where the ad goes to be released, it should be stopped at that level. At each of these stages there should be some regulation.” He adds, “It is also the responsibility of the publishers/channel not to take up such communication. This completes the loop at the fourth stage before it reaches the consumer. At the end, the blame can be passed from one to another, but when something wrong reaches the consumer, that is not acceptable and between these four agencies as our stakeholders, most errors should be caught and checked.”


But what if self-regulation still does not yield the desired results? Says Purandare, “If self-regulation doesn’t work, then you will have the regulator coming in and it will be like censorship, which is not good for the industry. So, we are trying to build awareness.”


Another note of caution comes from Shashi Sinha, CEO of IPG MediaBrands India, who has been associated with ASCI for a long time: “ASCI is doing a great job. A lot of advertisers hate ASCI but they do not know how stringent it will be if the government steps in instead of the self-regulation regime. A lot of marketers believe competition is behind the complaints against their ads, but that is not so. It is a very mature process and if people become partners, it will be even better"


Unfortunately, these fears are not exactly unfounded, as highly placed industry sources on condition of anonymity talk of the two lobbies in the government we mentioned earlier, one of them inclined to gain control of the advertising sector. 



While violations have been seen across categories, Purandare says that certain verticals have been extremely worrisome and all efforts are on to curb these violations. “Four categories are of great concern to us – education, healthcare, personal care and services (healthcare, particularly herbal supplements, and other services like banking, insurance, telephone),” she says. 


However, while ASCI gets a thumbs up from the entire ad fraternity for bringing in a certain level of discipline into the process, Bhasin believes it can be improved further. He says, “A category which has been under the scanner for a long time is fairness products. Every time they have tried to evolve something, the manufacturers have found another way around it. ASCI constantly tried to better it and be one step ahead of it. It has to be a dynamic process, it can’t be a static process.”



Even as the industry looks to pull up its socks, ASCI is planning to empower its stakeholders. For one, it has revamped its social media and is actively using this platform to create awareness by uploading videos online and targeting offenders via Facebook and Twitter. In addition, the Department of Consumer Affairs is looking at conducting joint programmes with ASCI to educate consumers. ASCI may also collaborate with the IBF for scrolls, which inform consumers where they can complain about misleading ads. Plans are also afoot to roll out online training programmes about the ASCI code, which could be availed of by all people associated with advertising – advertisers, advertising agencies as well as media. This is something which Sinha totally supports:"A lot of people in advertising are not trained. Young brand marketers and ad guys don’t know the basis of the guidelines for self regulation and end up violating them, there should be a process of educating them." 


ASCI – The Code for Self-Regulation in Advertising

The Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) has adopted a Code for Self-Regulation in Advertising. It is a commitment to honest advertising and to fair competition in the market-place. It stands for the protection of the legitimate interests of consumers and all concerned with Advertising - Advertisers, Media, Advertising Agencies and others who help in the creation or placement of advertisements.


The stipulations of the code are

I. To ensure the truthfulness and honesty of representations and claims made by advertisements and to safeguard against misleading advertisements.

II. To ensure that advertisements are not offensive to generally accepted standards of public decency.

III. To safeguard against the indiscriminate use of advertising for the promotion of products which are regarded as hazardous to society or to individuals to a degree or of a type which is unacceptable to society at large

IV. To ensure that advertisements observe fairness in competition so that the consumer’s need to be informed on choices in the market-place and the canons of generally accepted competitive behaviour in business are both served.


Feedback: saloni.dutta@exchange4media.com

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