Last week, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) ordered broadcasters not to air advertisements that violated the Advertising Standards Council of India’s (ASCI) code, and did not comply with the decision of its Consumer Complaints Council (CCC).
ASCI, a self-regulatory body for the Indian advertising industry, recently released a set of final guidelines for the advertising of skin lightening and fairness products. This was after seeking industry and public feedback to a draft it had issued earlier.
Approximately 50 ads will have to be taken off air, most of them being fairness products and teleshopping brands. Industry experts understand the importance of communicating with responsibility, but the strict implementation of the guidelines has not gone down too well with the fraternity.
“There may be some revenue loss in the short term, but the decision will not make a tangible difference the long run,” said Nitish Mukherjee, Strategic Advisor - South Asia, The Leo Burnett Group, India. “I am sure there are more responsible ways to communicate the advantages of these products and brands will be back with something new. And in the case where products were being sold by misleading people, what advertising loses, consumers gain! In my view, that’s a better balance sheet,” he added.
According to Raj Gupta, President, Lowe Lintas, the decision should not affect the industry. “Misleading ads should not be up there in the first place and responsible advertisers are sensitive to this,” he said.
Presenting both sides of the argument, Amitava Sinha, Chief Operating Officer at Rediffusion Y&R, said, “The fairness category has always drawn controversies, however it still continues to lead the beauty run. There is merit in knowing that being fair is still a key driver for beauty in our country.” However, he added that brands must stop pushing the boundaries on what a product can actually deliver.
“The major players in the category have already done that I don’t see why other brands can’t follow suit,” he said. However, he was not as forgiving to teleshopping brands. “This world (teleshopping) is a maze of confusion … I am not sure how much of it actually falls in the credible space. If we are responsible marketers, then as an industry we need to take this responsibility seriously. If putting a stop to incredible advertising is a step in that direction, why not?”
According to Mukherjee, self-censorship bodes well for the industry. “Being a self-regulated and responsible industry can only augur well for us. In a changing environment with greater consciousness of social and gender issues, reviewing guidelines and processes on an ongoing basis is essential,” he said. Mukherjee insisted that it was important to be pro-active in “looking at issues that concern society and respond to their concerns.” “Otherwise we would have abdicated our right to self-governance,” he reiterated. He gave a thumbs down to what he calls is “direct intervention by the government” and voted instead for “Close interaction between the government and ASCI to understand issues.”
“The guidelines are fine and we are sure most advertisers will follow it,” said Gupta, who made a case for notifying the advertiser well before yanking off the ad. “Often it’s about interpretations and if the campaign is pulled off arbitrarily, without notice, it could wreak havoc,” he said adding, “The advertiser should be allowed to give clarifications or substantiation and make changes as per the ASCI advice,” said Gupta.
Sinha was in favour of enforcing stringent guidelines. “If you look closely, ASCI’s ruling is against brands using over-the-top, unreal claims to sell to consumers. That’s fair because in the race to outrun each other and gain eyeballs, brands leverage superlatives to unbelievable heights, which is a gross mismanagement of how they present themselves to the consumer,” he said. He was of the opinion that these guidelines will “force marketers to be conscientious in their approach, it will make us as a fraternity, not be overawed and over-promise. If the consumer is the king, then he deserves honest communication.”
When asked if the guidelines will help promote best-practices for the industry, or hamper creativity, Mukherjee remarked that creativity is too powerful a force to be contained. “There can always be compelling arguments for legitimate products, communicated in a manner that does not denigrate any strata or segment of society. In a societal context, restraining unbridled freedom responsibly is not necessarily akin to setting up a roadblock.” Agreed Gupta, “Guidelines will help promote best practices in consumer interest. Creativity has never been about misleading consumers.”