ASCI set to tackle ads for 'healthy foods' that glorify half-truths

Backing from the government and changed laws will help the regulatory body

e4m by Malay Desai
Updated: Jan 6, 2015 9:30 AM
ASCI set to tackle ads for 'healthy foods' that glorify half-truths

The Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) - in partnership with the government of India - is all set to crack down on advertisers promising slimmer waists, smarter children and other assorted ways to immortality through claims about products made in their advertisements.

Moreover, if ASCI agrees to proposals of the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) made just last fortnight, the noose around misleading F&B products will tighten further.

We spoke to the top heads of the Council, representatives of popular erring brands, watchdogs of public health as well as marketing pundits to discuss how this cookie will crumble.

There were times in advertising when food brands would promise miraculous cures to diseases and other outwardly things (The drink Dr Pepper was sold as a ‘brain tonic’ at drug stores) but now, long since the ‘no ullu-banaoing’ era has begun, the approaches have been a little more pragmatic.

Now, as miraculous claims remain only in fringe advertising as the consumer has smartened up and regulation has become tighter, brands have gone one-up in the game by repositioning their foods as being ‘functional’. So while cereal A does not say it will cure your obesity, it says, rather attractively, that it ‘promotes health’; and biscuit B, not promising to prevent heart disease, vaguely calls itself ‘whole’ or ‘natural’ or something that vaguely maintains wellness. Welcome to the world of exaggerated claims, misleading catchphrases and the great Indian middle class, buying into ‘health’ amidst its stressful lifestyle.

While the most regularly caught culprits of misleading advertisements of smartly positioned ‘functional foods’ are milk additives and digestive biscuits, there have been many more, some perhaps lying inside your kitchen at this moment.

Back in the 80s, ‘health drinks’ were marketed only to the elderly and sick, but now, the target audience is children. With some help from the pressures of our education system and social norms, milk additive brands created a breed of ‘smarter’ and ‘taller’ children who were in some way better than the others. While Kapil Dev and Sachin Tendulkar phased out as the Boost drinker’s inspirational idols, the real hero became ‘homework’ and better memory.

While it’s difficult to point out if GSK’s Horlicks began the race in 2004 with its ‘taller, sharper, stronger’ claim, the competition intensified with Complan getting an ‘independent scientific research study’ to claim its kids grew taller by three centimetres compared to non-Complan drinkers!

Today, the Rs 4,000 crore malt drink market (or ‘health drinks’) as the brands call themselves, target the parents with a hotchpotch of promises about their children’s intellect, height, energy and more. Big campaigns especially begin around this period and go up to exam time, i.e., March-April.

Programme Director of the Center for Public Health and Awareness (CPHA), Prof Smitha Sarma Ranganathan, makes it clear that just these drinks can have no impact on a child’s health or intellect. “While minerals and vitamins (what these energy drinks contain) do have an impact on these parameters, drinking them alone doesn’t assure one of these benefits. I would any day go for balanced and sustainable means of growth and development, right from childhood and all through one’s life,” she tells us.

While ASCI has upheld adverts by all three big players, Cadbury (Bournvita), GSK (Boost and Horlicks) and Heinz (Complan) in the past, it is likely to pick upon them more often now, thanks to a more streamlined process of complaints.

One of the clever adverts which surprisingly skipped the ASCI radar was Complan’s TVC of it having ‘8 memory chargers.’ The commercial’s voice-over said that the reason for a child forgetting things could be incomplete nutrition, while the visual showed a child refusing his meal of chapatti, dal, sabzi and chawal. The Hindi narration talked about feeding children with New Complan that had ‘8 memory chargers’.

“How do the 8 memory chargers help improve a child’s memory? We were surprised that a complaint against this was not upheld by ASCI, though we learnt from the company that the FSSAI had initiated adjudication proceedings against the TVC,” says Pritee Shah, Chief General Manager of the Consumer Education and Research Centre (CERC).

In 1892, McVitie’s became the pioneer of thinking that the biscuit can be ‘digestive’ too, and it still is telling us the same, these days with a little help from actor Bipasha Basu. The other big players in this increasingly big market are Britannia with NutriChoice and Horlicks’ Nutribic. While Basu may seduce us with the nutritive values of her biscuit, her brand as well as all others won’t tell you about the levels of unsaturated fat and sugar.

“All bakery items or so-called diet foods are high in sodium or many other preserved components,” says Malavika Athavale, who runs a nutrition clinic in Mumbai, adding that as most of the biscuits’ target consumers are on-the-go, whole grain or multi grain by default becomes a comparatively better choice than biscuits made with refined flour or maida.

The nutritional segment of the over Rs 12,000 crore biscuit market may be small, but the biggies are prepared to go to war. With Britannia at the forefront (NutriChoice declaring ‘no added sugar’ and vying for the diabetics pie and Vita Marie claiming to be ‘heart-friendly’ and ‘help reduce cholesterol’), Horlicks is playing catch-up and Parle too is now in the fray.

With Parle Digestive Marie and Actifit sugarless Cream Cracker, the food giant has unveiled its first step into the ‘healthy food’ market. And if we go by the packaging of Parle’s new digestive biscuit Simply Good, it has started off without loud claims. “The brand follows the philosophy of mindful eating. Rather than scaring off consumers, we ask them to enjoy everything in the right proportion. We have always been honest to our consumers - their trust in us is testimony. No brand will gain in the long run if it is not true and honest to its customers,” says Pravin Kulkarnii, Parle’s General Manager – Marketing.

Kulkarnii feels the proposed tie-up with the Department of Consumer Affairs (DoCA) will help ASCI. “It will augment the efforts to stop misleading ads and provide the necessary wherewithal to implement ASCI directives to advertisers about changing misleading ads,” he adds, although feeling that it is self-regulation in the end that can lead to responsible advertising.

Nutritionists and health experts might have found it hard to control their sniggers when Nestle, makers of the market dominator Maggi Noodles, positioned them as ‘healthy’. Coming from the organization that hasn't even spared discouraging breast-feeding in poor communities to promote its health drink, it seems even less believable that instant noodles can be good for your health.

ASCI, which has regularly seen Nestle products go under the scanner (it even rapped Maggi soups in 2007 for falsely claiming to be ‘heart-friendly’), upheld complaints against Maggi’s recent claims of making health ‘mazedaar’ and depicting Madhuri Dixit in a fit lifestyle.

“When our in-house laboratory tested instant noodle brands, the results showed that they were high on salt and fat, making them an unhealthy option, especially for regular consumption. ASCI upheld our complaint,” informs Pritee Shah of CERC. Her centre has also debunked Maggi’s claim of its oats variant having real vegetables. “The dehydrated vegetables which are present in the taste-maker would not be a significant source of nutrients both in terms of quality and quantity,” she said.

Not surprisingly, Maggi’s competitors are also not far away from misreporting on their products’ benefits. In October last year, the Consumer Education and Research Society (CERS), Ahmedabad found high salt and fat content in Top Ramen and Ching’s Secret too.

Expectedly, nutritionist Athavale too isn’t convinced by healthy noodle adverts: “Be it wheat or oats, the preservation and sodium part (in packaged products) continues to be unhealthy. Consuming such foods on a regular basis is definitely a no!” she says.

Now, with ASCI’s partnership with the Department of Consumer Affairs (DoCA), the latter will redirect complaints it receives to ASCI, to avoid duplication of processing. The tie-up has prioritized six sectors of tracking complaints, and ‘agriculture and food’ is among them. What this means is that the government will build a coalition of watchdogs to combat misleading advertisements and consequent unfair trade practices.

“The Ministry (of Information & Broadcasting) has always been supportive to us. Now, with the Consumer Affairs ministry making us key stake-holders, advertisers will be even more cautious,” ASCI Secretary General, Shweta Purandare says.

One crucial factor is that if ads are found to be misleading with exaggerated claims in packaging or communication and proven to be fraudulent, the penalty is just Rs 10 lakh. This pittance of a penalty isn’t discouragement enough for big advertisers to stop making outwardly promises on their packaging. The penalty must be raised if the brand’s sales are national and run into crores.

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