Misleading ads on the rise, authorities vow strict monitoring

  • Zia Haq, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: May 17, 2016 00:47 IST
In the world of Indian advertising, false ads, including that of weight-loss drugs to libido-enhancing potions, are notoriously common and easy to get away with. (Representative photo)

Last year, the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), the industry-run self-regulator, asked Bharti Airtel Ltd, the country’s largest telecom company, to modify its ad that screamed: “Airtel 4G is the fastest network ever”.

The regulator’s notice said without “appropriate disclaimers”, the bragging punchline was misleading and violated chapter 1.4 of the advertising code. The telco refused comment on the notice.

In the pulsating world of Indian advertising, false ads are notoriously common and easy to get away with. It’s not just the smaller firms who bluff their way, peddling everything from weight-loss drugs to libido-enhancing potions on late-night TV. Big brands are an equal culprit, data accessed by HT show.

More outlandish examples abound. The ASCI charged Patanjali Ayurved Limited, a blockbuster consumer-goods firm founded by yoga guru Baba Ramdev, with a similar violation.

Claims behind the firm’s Youvan Gold Plus, billed as a homegrown Viagra, that it restored marital bliss violated “the Drugs & Magic Remedies Act”.

“To the best of my knowledge, we never advertised it. We haven’t received any notice from the ASCI either,” said SK Tijarewala, a spokesperson of Patanjali.

In the 12 months to March 2016, 363 ads, including those by big firms, were shot down. In 2014-15, there were 203 such ads, compared to the previous year’s 187.

Authorities have now vowed stricter monitoring, after lawmakers raised a stink in Parliament. The government regulators have picked six sectors for a closer watch: food and agriculture, health, education, real estate, transport and financial services.

“A big chunk of ads that get complained against are misleading and advertisers are asked to modify the ad within 10 days or withdraw,” said Shweta Purandare, the ASCI’s secretary-general.

In February, the ASCI picked holes in Hindustan Unilever Ltd’s “Dove Hair Fall Rescue Shampoo with Nutrilock Actives”. The regulator ruled that the claim — “Yeh damaged balon ko jadon se upar poshan de aur unhe banaye siron se majboot” (nourishes damaged hair from roots up)” — used in the print advertisement was misleading. The company didn’t respond to HT’s attempts for a comment.

The ASCI is probing pan masala (mouth freshener) ads for using celebrities. The code bars companies from using celebrities to promote items requiring a health warning.

The ASCI code is recognised by the information and broadcasting ministry and by virtue of that, it is complied with by the ad industry.

The consumer affairs ministry recently appointed ASCI as its executive arm while the I&B ministry has set up an inter-ministerial panel.

Purandare said big brands, conscious of their image, comply fully. “Overall, there is over 80% compliance. For those that don’t, we refer their cases to various nodal ministries for action,” she said.

Consumer rights campaigners argue for steeper fines and jail, saying the current approach is focused merely on rectifying a false ad. “Violations are par for the course. Firms have to at best modify the ad, at worst withdraw it. Other than that, they go scot-free,” said Ravikant Vyas, who runs the NGO Grahak Jagruti Abhiyaan.

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