Ethics in advertising came under the scanner at the St. Xavier's College Calcutta Alumni Association's annual debate on Saturday. The motion of the debate was 'in the opinion of the house, ethics in advertising has taken a backseat in the current scenario.'
The proponents of the motion were a team from the college's alumni, comprising two professors, economist Suman Mukherjee and N Vishwanathan, a familiar face on Kolkata Doordarshan at one time as a newscaster; a legal practitioner, Abhrajit Mitra, and a high-profile IAS officer, Atri Bhattercharya, who also happens to be Executive Director of the West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation.
The proponents predictably took potshots at admen raising issues like exaggerated claims, comparative ads, use of sex and influencing unsuspecting children. Prof Vishwanathan's introduction of the motion, laced with his personal travails in experimenting with the 'Axe Effect', had the audience in splits.
Their contention was that there was more to life than consumerism and material acquisition. The heavy dose of advertising in the media -- eight minutes out of every 30 minutes on TV, according to one speaker -- was actually fuelling this culture. Questions were also raised about respect for morality, the irresponsible ad links on the Internet and advertisements for even metaphysical services like astrology.
The opposition's rebuttal was no less weighty with heavyweights from advertising, marketing and the media in its ranks. Speaking for the opposition were one time ad man and advertising trainer Sumit Roy of Univbrands, Amitabha Datta, Vice-President, The Telegraph, Amitava Sinha of Rediffusion and Jayashree Mohanka from Eveready.
The opposition case centred around the economic benefits of advertising in a market economy -- how it ensures that the consumer is king and the practice of focusing only on favourable aspects being true of any profession. Ethical standards of advertising should be judged in the light of the fact it is really defined by the moral values of society, they submitted.
While admitting that some advertising was unethical, they talked also of regulatory mechanisms like the Advertising Standards Council of India, consumer activism and competition policing. Advertising being answerable to the consumers cannot get away if it is unethical was their basic argument.
After several repartees and a lively interaction session following the debate, the motion was carried by a show of hands. The consumers in the audience will surely experience some moral qualms next time they make a brand choice.