Liquor baron Vijay Mallya has finally withdrawn the advertisement spoofing spinner Harbhajan Singh that offended the cricketer's family leading to a formal complaint against the ad. The legal notice that Singh's family sent to Mallya's company said that the commercial mocked Singh, his family and the Sikh community but surprisingly, the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) - a self-regulating voluntary organisation of the advertising industry - says it hasn't received a single complaint against the 'offensive' ad. "The ad is not under our scanner yet," says Alan Collaco, the secretary general.
But while the jury is out on whether this particular ad was offensive, Indians are taking their ads a lot more seriously - mid 2011 and they have already received 722 complaints against 187 advertisements as compared to just 200 complaints against 140 advertisements last year. "This year we've clocked the highest number of complaints ever, a four-time increase over last year," says Dhananjay Keskar, chairman of ASCI. "Complaints go up when ads are released and now with email and phone, it's easier for people to register their grievances," he adds. The organisation recently got support funding of $100,000 from the World Federation of Advertising. They also introduced a toll-free number last year. "Earlier people had to send a clipping of the offensive ad via snail-mail. All this has made it easier for people to complain," he says.
Us and them
The complaints are going up, but India stacks way below other countries. Bharat Patel, member of the consultative committee of ASCI and ex-chairman of Procter and Gamble, says that the awareness about ASCI and its work is low compared to other developed countries. "Ad self regulatory organisations in countries with fraction of India's population such as New Zealand or Ireland get 500 complaints annually. A mid-sized country like the United Kingdom gets 29,000 complaints while we get an average of just 250. It's important for people to know that an organisation which regulates ad content exists so that they don't feel helpless or worse - call upon the government to regulate ad content."
The good news is that there is 100% legal backing for regulating offensive TV ads as compared to print, since the Cable TV Act says the ASCI code has to be followed in TV commercials. According to Patel, ASCI is perhaps the only self-regulating organisation in the world which is recognised by the government. "So no ad which violates the ASCI's code can be run on TV in India as per the law," he says.
While ASCI acts on the complaints it receives, Piyush Pandey, executive chairman and creative director, south Asia, Ogilvy India, says self regulation is important than bodies who regulate. "We're not like the US or the UK who follow codes in a consistent fashion. The responsibility lies with ad agencies and advertisers. It shouldn't come to the point where the consumer feels cheated or get a wrong impression about your product - that's damaging to the advertiser."
The Indian consumer may not mind his favourite cricketer being lampooned, but he's certainly confused when he sees a woman in a swimsuit endorsing cement. ASCI clocked the maximum number of complaints for JK Cement's ad this year. "People have written in saying what's a skimpily dressed woman got to do with cement? It makes no sense," says Collaco. Pandey, dismissive of the ad, says it reminds him of the "good old days of advertising" when a "buxom Katy Mirza stood next to a bottle of rum" and calls it "the most ridiculous kind of advertising." "People aren't dumb. That's the reason why advertising is getting better. Clients and ad people are realising it's important to treat the consumer with respect. He now understands your jokes and hyperbole," he says.
Our numbers as a 'complaining consumer' may be growing, it's still not enough. "Multiply every 250 complaints received by 800. That's the reality of the number of people who'd be upset with the ad," says brand consultant Harish Bijoor. "Most people who are upset don't complain. It has not been a part of Indian culture. It's a 'we are like this only' attitude." Over the decades, he feels, Indians have become 'thick-skinned' to advertising. "Earlier, a condom or a sanitary napkin ad would get complaints, now people are ok with it. To a large extent India is getting less sensitive and more aware. So your complaints against ads going up is more to do with the fact that Indians are waking up to advertising."
While the recent clutch of deodorant ads have come under the scanner for being vulgar, with most complaints from men who say they can't watch them with families, most people are still unaware that a model/actor posing as a doctor in an ad isn't allowed. "Advertisers must be careful about this. Doctors in ads must be real. Ads can show their name and degree to prove authenticity," says Bijoor.
On one hand, ASCI figures point to the Indian consumer getting more vocal, experts say it'll take time for us to catch up. "We're a philosophical people with a 'this is the way it's meant to be' outlook. Abroad, consumers are forever looking to catch the advertiser. We are resilient to corruption, why would we complain about advertising? It's changing, people are waking up but slowly," he says.