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No room for tall claims

Ad awareness: The ad watchdog, Advertising Standards Council of India, is actively pursuing complaints and raising awareness about misleading ads, forcing companies to change tack, reports Rachit Vats.See graphics | The ABC of ASCI

business Updated: Jan 28, 2010 02:02 IST
Rachit Vats

The commercial: People from various professions are shown walking on several locations while talking on mobile phones. Two men carrying a huge hoarding climb a staircase, walk on the pavement.

The complaint: The ad encourages unsafe walking while talking on the mobile phone (Seven similar complaints were received against the commercial).

ASCI’s take: Some action sequences as depicted in the commercial show dangerous practices and manifest a disregard for safety without justifiable reason.

Result: Commercial modified

Earlier, though advertisers would take its recommendations seriously, the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) — set up as the industry’s self-regulatory body by advertisers, the advertising industry and the media in 1985 — had no legal powers.

In recent years, however, the Union Information and Broadcasting (I&B) Ministry has taken a more active role in cracking down on what it considers to be objectionable advertising.

ASCI’s advertising guidelines got accepted by the I&B Ministry in 2007 and became part of the Cable TV Act’s advertising code. As a result, the regulatory body now has more legal backing to stop offensive or misleading ads from being aired or printed if it finds a complaint is legitimate.

An increasingly assertive ASCI pulled up close to 20 advertisers for misleading ad campaigns between July and December 2009. They include Onida, Reliance, Idea Cellular, Telemax, Pepsodent, Tata Indicom and Career Launcher. ASCI says the compliance rate for its recommendations is 95 per cent.

“With so much competition, cases of objectionable advertising do come up, though, ideally, neither the advertiser nor the agency wants to be irresponsible,” said Madhukar Sabnavis, country head, discovery and planning of Ogilvy India, a leading ad agency. “The basic idea is to guard consumer interest. His or her sensitivity should not be hurt.”

The regulatory body can now forward a case to the ministry if an advertiser fails to comply with its recommendations.

Between January and September 2009, 110 complaints were submitted to the ASCI — an insufficient number according to the regulatory body.

Therefore, to raise awareness about misleading ads, the ad watchdog decided to advertise its own role in the media. A simple TV and print media campaign that is currently running provides information on ASCI’s role and contact details for anyone who wants to bring an objectionable ad to notice.

Ad firm Mudra has created the ad campaign, and all media carrying it are not charging ASCI for the ads.

“On an average, we receive about 150 complaints a year,” said Dhananjay Keskar, chairman, ASCI board. “With the awareness campaign, more complaints are coming in and, at times, multiple complaints come in for the same ad.”

Rival firms file complaints against each other, too.

Two such recent complaints are still pending with ASCI — Nokia’s complaint against Onida for an alleged disparaging reference to its brand name and Tata Sky’s complaint against Dish TV against alleged misleading picture clarity claims.

With competition increasing, advertisers had a tendency to go overboard, Suman Srivastava, CEO of ad agency Euro RSCG (India), said. “This is where the regulatory body steps in. Any advertising that makes tall claims does not necessarily work,” he said. “Regulation is a must but needs to be balanced and fair.”

Madhukar Kamath, managing director and CEO, Mudra group, added, “The current ASCI campaign has resulted in nearly 200 calls made to the helpline number put down in the advertisements in the first 50 days of the campaign’s release.”

Industry watchers agree that a confident ad watchdog is good news for the Indian consumer.