Setting advertising standards in India
Advertising standards and self-regulation by the advertising industry is an important issue, particularly so in a country such as India where we have our share of the vigilante outfits, the self-styled moral brigade who make a hue and cry if they find any ad offensive. To improve our record, we need to compare ourselves to the rest of the world. This does not mean that there is a global barometer which sets standards on which ads are offensive and which are not…but the way they do it over there holds some lessons for us.
ASA verses ASCI
If we go simply the number of ads for which the ASCI (Advertising Standards Council of India) receives complaints, then Indian advertising is of exceptionally high standards! Far fewer advertisements are hauled before the ASCI than the ASA (the Advertising Standards Authority of Britain). If the ASCI receives complaints in the hundreds, the ASA receives them in tens of thousands. In the west a complaint against just one ad can go into hundreds. For example ads in the top ten (the greater the number of complaints against an ad, the better it’s chances of making it to this dubious top 10) can draw over 500 complaints, while ads here even if found objectionable do not attract more than a few complaints.
In India, the number of complaints do not always give a true picture of the standards of advertising nor does it say anything about the level of consumer dissatisfaction. The reasons: low awareness level. Second reason: apathy.
Infact, there was a rush of complaints after the ASCI launched an awareness campaign some years ago. However, as the effect of these periodic awareness campaigns wears off, so does the desire to complain.
Another difference: Unlike the ASCI, the ASA is disappointed if the number of complaints against ads increase, as it could indicate a lowering of advertising standards n the country. The ASA is also quite pro-active. It has conducted surveys of the national and regional press to check compliance with the ASA codes. It’s results have been encouraging. 97 per cent of ads were found to comply with the codes in one such survey.
This is not to say that the ASCI doesn’t know it’s onions. Or that the consumer is taking it all lying down. Complaints are received about flagrantly false and misleading claims. There are usually a number of complaints against almost all types of ads, from cellular operators’ misleading claims, about ads from finance companies promising high returns, to ads of creams and lotions promising the earth.
At times the ASCI dismisses what it feels are frivolous complaints. For example a complaint against the Mirinda Lemon line zor ka jhatka, dheere se lage, was that it was grossly misleading. The ASCI dismissed the case.
Cases relating to intra-industry grievances are common. Fena Ltd. had once lodged a compliant against Hindustan Lever Ltd., for allegedly misleading consumers by making a claim hat it’s Vim was ‘nimbu-yukt’ (with lemon). The ASCI asked HLL for an explanation about this.
What’s decent differs greatly in different countries
Strangely, unlike in most western countries, in India few complaints raise the matter of taste and decency. It almost seems as if when it comes to taste and decency, Indian advertising seems to know the limits. Showing a bit of leg is fine, but not too much else. Ofcourse, the fact that ads like Tuffs and MR Coffee which showed more were made examples of, was a deterrent.
There was a poster for Irn Bru that created a stir in Britain some years ago, a poster shocking by Indian standards. It featured a cow saying, ‘When I’m a burger, I want to be washed down with Irn Bru.’ Complainants believed that the ad was highly offensive, and challenged the assumption that the cow would enjoy becoming a burger. Oddly enough ASA did not uphold the complaint as it believed that the majority of people seeing this ad would not be seriously offended by it. Obviously ASA was not swayed by the total number of complaints against the ad.
As always, religion is a raw nerve. One ad which figured in the top ten around the same time was one for The Sunday Times. The first of a six-part photographic series titled ‘heavenly bodies’, it had the photograph was of a voluptuous woman wearing a leather bikini who was tied to a wooden cross. The complainants felt that the ad was not only tasteless, but provocative and blasphemous to Christians. The ASA expectedly upheld all these complaints!
How many bad ads?
Overall, however, in any given year, less than 10 per cent of ads that are complained about are actually found to break the ASA codes. Some disputes are resolved informally.
In India however, a very large percentage of ads (amongst the complaints) are found not to comply with advertising codes and in some years this figure goes up to more than 50 per cent.
Worse, at times the advertisers continue to air the ads. For example there was this ad for Mortein Kind 12-hour Mosquito mats some years ago. The complaint stated that that the ad copy ‘More smart, more safe’ was not clear. What was more safe? The product? Or the use of the mats? This complaint was upheld by the ASCI, but the ad was not modified. G. Pereira, secretary general, ASCI, feels that the media should cooperate and not air such ads.
Is the ASCI toothless?
The ASCI does seem to suffer from a lack of media support. On the other hand, the ASA has teeth. It can exert pressure on advertisers and media who do not toe the line. For one thing, the ASA’s monthly reports – which contain details of adjudications, including the name of the advertiser, the agency and the media – are circulated to journalists, government bodies, the ad industry, consumer organisations and the public. Cases receive intensive media coverage. As a result, publishers and media owners may even decide to refuse further space to advertiser until the ad is withdrawn or amended. Also, both advertisers and ad agencies may lose membership in trade and professional organisations, resulting in a loss of trading benefits. And the best part is that the ASA can refer a misleading ad to the Office of Fair trading, which can obtain an injunction in court to prevent advertisers from using similar claims in future.
Self Regulation keeps the moral brigade away
Finally, self-regulation is best, and certainly preferable to third-party interference. Without self-regulation, a vacuum is created, and then over-enthusiastic and vigilante outfits (we don’t have a dearth of those!) rush to fill it.
(This is an abridged version of the article which was published in The Advertising and Marketing (A&M) magazine.)