Advertising watchdog ASCI (Advertising Standards Council of India) created a furore earlier in the week when it issued a suspension order to Bharti SoftBank to withdraw its online commercial. The ad was part of the brand’s ongoing digital campaign titled ‘Keep Close Friends Close’ for its free messaging app Hike Messenger. ASCI said that the commercial violated advertising codes.
This is the very first time ASCI has taken an action against a digital advertisement on grounds of finding it extremely offensive. The creative agency for the campaign is Taproot India.
“In principle, I agree with ASCI’s decision; if there is anything that is offensive and is creating damage, it should be removed. When something is created, it may be comprehended differently and created with the best intent, but it is open to interpretation. This is why we have a self regulating body in the form of ASCI,” said KV Sridhar, Chief Creative Officer, Leo Burnett India and Sub Continent, who hasn’t seen the said advertisement and did not want to comment on the same.
The Indian advertising market is currently pegged at Rs 35000 crore, according to industry estimates. The online or digital component of this pie in terms of media spends is estimated to be 8 to 10 per cent, which would be Rs 300 crore to Rs 350 crore, a sizeable chunk and only estimated to grow driven by growth in mobile and smartphone penetration, gaining increasing consideration by marketers.
ASCI has seen a steady increase in the number of ads coming under its scanner. It had also introduced a new initiative in April this year, Suspension Pending Investigation (SPI), giving more teeth to the regulatory body. Advertisements that are seen in serious breach of ASCI’s code, either being gravely obscene, indecent, vulgar or against public interest, will now be required to be withdrawn immediately, pending decision of its Consumer Complaint Council (CCC).
“The digital medium is becoming more and more important, relevant and intrusive. If a code is not followed, so be it. Errants need to be warned. This is ASCI’s primary role,” said Harish Bijoor, Brand Expert and CEO, Bijoor Consults, supporting the decision.
From upholding to suspension
Only last month, the self regulating body also tracked and upheld complaints against four online advertisements.
An ad for HUL’s brand Sun Silk Perfect Straight was also upheld by the CCC. The ad had appeared online on the YouTube channel and showed a girl selecting all her hair straightening equipment and her friend telling her about a shampoo that can keep the hair perfectly straight after attending a gym session, party or even in other situations. The claim was found to be misleading and not adequately scientifically substantiated.
Lavanya Ayurvedic Hospital in its online advertisement claimed that it cures cancer and AIDS. This claim contravened provisions of the Drug & Magic Remedies Act and hence, the complaint was upheld.
The Consumer Complaints Council of ASCI also found two personal care product ads released online violating Chapter III 1(b) of the ASCI Code as it derides colour of the skin. Complaints against these two ads were upheld. The first ad concerned HUL brand Ponds BB Cream, titled ‘The Future of India’. The ad goes on to talk about various benefits of the product and how women yearn to have fair skin. The second ad concerns Emami Fair and Handsome cream, which showed a flow chart in their online ad that depicts the various problems such as inferiority complex, not good looking, etc., affecting people with dark skin colour.
“ASCI has been overseeing adherence of agreed upon standards in the conventional mass media. However, with the emergence of digital media, particularly the technology-enabled one-to-one communication possibilities, directional media and social media, there is a need to set newer standards and norms for industry to follow. Therefore ASCI's involvement is necessary in addressing issues of misleading communications or communications that are cleverly couched for alternative interpretations by ordinary consumers,” observed Abraham Koshy, Professor, Marketing, IIM Ahmedabad.
It is not uncommon to see numerous ongoing advertisements and communications in the digital media that can mislead consumers. Many so-called medicines that claim magical properties are such examples.
Do brands take extra liberties when it comes to digital?
“The point is that marketers tend to view digital space as space where you can get away with a bit of stabbing, if not murder. Digital is seen to be less policed space. The creative licence is used in a bit of a ‘bindaas’ manner in digital space,” stated Bijoor.
“Whenever the word ‘natural’ or ‘ayurvedic’ is used, the communicator escapes many provisions of law as these types of remedies are not under the direct jurisdiction of Government regulatory authorities. Digital media is amenable for misuse because unlike conventional media, there is no ‘push’ exposure of advertisement messages that put some self-regulation, but only ‘pull’ messages to individuals, which gather mass momentum and therefore higher escape routes to a communicator. It is in this context that a stronger intervention by an industry quasi-regulatory body like ASCI is needed,” added Koshy.
Regulating youth land?
Whilst there is undoubtedly a need for regulation of content on digital media given its growing importance, the digital domain is a space where the youth of today express themselves and enjoy their freedom.
Youth brands will essentially talk to the youth in their own language to connect and engage with them in their space, attempting to mirror their culture and behaviour. In such a scenario, will it really be possible to treat advertising in the digital space with the same lens as advertising in the physical space. Will this welcome to self regulation in the digital domain then last long, especially keeping in mind India’s increasingly important and growing youth and millennial target audience?