Every year, the healthcare sector generates hundreds of ads that do not stand up to the scrutiny of India’s advertising regulatory body
As many as 320 advertisements run across assorted media platforms in 2020-21, the first year of the pandemic, made unsubstantiated claims related to Covid-19 and its management, a review by the regulator found. Only 12 such Covid-19 ads were found to be scientifically correct by Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) during the year, including those for Savlon handwash, Domex floor cleaner, Lizol cleaners, Dazzl floor cleaner and Nimyle floor cleaner.
Every year, the healthcare sector generates hundreds of ads that do not stand up to the scrutiny of India’s advertising regulatory body. These ads either make false claims about cure to diseases and ailments or exaggerate their effectiveness in doing so.
In 2018-2019, 772 ads were found to have made scientifically incorrect claims, while in 2019-2020, ASCI found that 579 ads flouted advertising guidelines.
Since March 2020, because of the heightened concern over health issues, anxious consumers were looking for products that could improve immunity, deliver higher levels of hygiene, etc.
“While there were some genuinely useful products and brands, we observed 967 cases of violations from the healthcare sector in 2020-2021. Many of these misleading ads promoted Covid-19 cures or immunity from it,” informs Manisha Kapoor, secretary general, ASCI.
Misleading ads that take advantage of the consumer’s fear over contracting Covid-19 have not stopped. For instance, one of the ads under ASCI scrutiny in May 2021 was an ad for Bajaj fans which claimed that a new range of fans had ‘antiviral, anti-bacterial’ features. ASCI found that the claim was based on a test conducted for a virus which is harmless to human beings. The regulatory body noted that the ad is “misleading the consumer to believe that the products protect from viruses that are harmful to human beings”.
Often brands try to play on the vulnerabilities and insecurities of consumers, especially in the healthcare space with claims like ‘kills 99.9% bacteria’ or that consuming some drink or health supplement will result in three times better immunity etc. Samrat Chengapa, executive vice president, dentsu mcgarrybowen, says, “Brands need to empathise with the consumer and connect at an emotional level rather than a transactional one. A brand should be bold enough to tell a consumer: use any hand wash but use one.”
Several of the claims in the healthcare sector come from fly-by-night businesses hoping to make a quick buck. “Typically, multinational companies steer clear of making false claims because they have internal best practices to follow and a panel of legal experts to advise them. Further, the fall from grace in one market can potentially impact the brand in other markets, too,” says Naresh Gupta, chief strategy officer, Bang In The Middle.
Outsmarting consumers is becoming harder with information being available more easily. “Consumers can tell if an ad or a product is making an overstatement or exaggeration and often evaluate claims themselves before making a purchase,” says Dheeraj Sinha, CEO and chief strategy officer, South Asia, Leo Burnett.
Yet, smart consumers may not exclude a brand from their lives. False and misleading claims have little or no impact on the sale of the brand’s portfolio of products in the long run, say industry executives. While the regulatory body escalates cases where the brand does not comply with the recommendations of ASCI to the AYUSH ministry, it is not until the incident gathers social media criticism or the brand is entangled in a legal tussle that the brand loses its brand equity, say industry executives.
“Maybe, in the short run, consumers might reject these brands, but in the long run, these missteps will be forgotten, simply because consumer memory is short,” Chengapa says.