By Alokananda Chakraborty
The government last week notified new guidelines on the ‘Prevention of Misleading Advertisements and Endorsements for Misleading Advertisements, 2022’ which also seeks to regulate advertisements targeted at children. This comes six years after the ministry of information & broadcasting mandated all commercials and advertisements to follow the Advertising Standards Council of India (Asci) code of self-regulation. Here Subhash Kamath, chairman, Asci, tells Alokananda Chakraborty what the new curbs mean for the industry in general and creativity in particular.
Do you think Asci’s code of self-regulation has failed or become redundant?
Asci has been extremely successful in monitoring ads and getting acceptance for its recommendations. That is why we have a 97% compliance rate.
Regulation and self-regulation work in a complementary manner. The latter is the first line of defence that focuses on awareness, persuasion, prevention and voluntary compliance. The law, meanwhile, focuses on enforcement. In cases of wilful or repeat offenders, a legal deterrent – as part of the overall advertising ecosystem – is a useful tool. In this case, given the significant overlaps in the Asci code and the Central Consumer Protection Authority (CCPA) guidelines, this adds immense legal validation to the Asci guidelines.
What will be the role of Asci in the new scheme of things? What was Asci’s contribution in putting together the framework that is being put in place now?
Asci will continue to do its job of monitoring advertising and resolving complaints around marketing messages. We will also focus on efforts to help advertisers get it right. Through awareness, education and support, we want the industry to make successful campaigns that are responsible. Advertising is a key pillar of the economy and a robust and responsible ad industry must be supported. A key part of our mandate is to also keep the future in mind – we recognise how fast the industry has evolved and we see the need for digital-first and investments in artificial intelligence-based monitoring systems. And we have acted with urgency on this front.
As far as the government code is concerned, there is considerable overlap with Asci’s code. Our code has been around for years and has evolved over time. The fact that there is such an overlap only validates what we are doing. We have been providing the government with our feedback and points of view on various issues based on our extensive experience and expertise.
With the government going hammer and tongs after ads it deems misleading, apart from the proposed curbs on surrogate advertising and gender-stereotyping, do you think there is a threat to the whole process of creativity?
I have always maintained that with great creative power, comes great responsibility. So they are not mutually exclusive. After all, advertising is not creativity for creativity’s sake – it’s done to achieve a certain brand purpose. Brands, on their part, don’t want to be irresponsible and don’t want to be seen as that. So responsibility is joined at the hip with creativity. I personally don’t see any threat to the creative process. The new norms will only raise the standards of advertising. It will push our industry to work harder at being creative and more persuasive. In fact, by ensuring these protections are in place, we will only see a rise in creativity.
Rumours, myths and exaggerated facts have been the bane of advertising. Has the advent of social advertising made the situation worse?
Exaggeration and puffery are permitted in advertising, but they have to be presented in such a way that the consumer understands that it’s an exaggeration. The consumer must not be made to believe that it is actually what the product delivers. For example, if there is a light edible oil and the commercial shows a person flying after consuming food made in it, there is no doubt that it’s an exaggeration for the sake of effect only. Or, for example, the lovely Fevikwik commercial where the man catches his fish by putting Fevikwik on a stick. No one takes it literally and the consumer laughs along with the exaggeration. The problem arises when a false claim is sought to be passed off as the truth under the cover of exaggeration. For instance, there have been many products that claimed to prevent or cure the coronavirus without being backed by scientific evidence.
As far as social advertising is concerned, it’s the sheer speed and volume of advertising that makes it difficult to track. The number of advertisers has increased exponentially too, and not all those who post marketing messages on digital platforms have an understanding of advertising norms and frameworks. This causes problems too. This is why Asci has doubled down on tracking ads on digital platforms, partnering with TAM, a TV audience research outfit, to monitor more than 3,000 online platforms, including social media leaders like Facebook and Instagram. We also use artificial intelligence to detect paid-for influencer content that has not been declared as a marketing message.
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