Sucheta Dalal :Controlling creativity through statute
Sucheta Dalal

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Controlling creativity through statute  

Jul 10, 2006

There is a perception that the advertising industry and advertisers are deaf to complaints about false, misleading and surrogate advertising or ads that masquerade as news. This may end up extracting a heavy price from an industry that zealously guards its creative freedom. Consumer groups are lobbying hard for statutory regulation of advertising through an independent regulator under a stricter Code of Advertisement Standards. This includes a demand to pre-vet advertising for specific groups such as children. They argue that the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), a self- regulatory body, does not have the teeth to enforce its directions.


The industry denies this allegation and insists there is 80% compliance with ASCI orders. But after banning liquor and cigarettes ads through multiple ministries, this offers another ripe opportunity for politicians to exploit. The ministry of consumer affairs (MCA) is currently gathering feedback on the need to tighten regulation through statutory changes.


This may end up regulating creativity through a bureaucratic process at a time when Indian advertising is gaining international recognition and has just gathered a big cache of Golden Lions at Cannes. The industry needs to get out of its denial mode and stop insisting that advertisers always behave responsibly. If a Hindustan Lever borrows the format of its MNC parent and hawks ice-creams like condoms, it angers people. In India, ice-creams are always seen as a treat for children, not a part of foreplay. The company persists with the advertisements despite complaints from schools. It is hardly a responsible stance by a large advertiser.


On the other hand, we learn that a charming and lyrical underwear advertisement which did not depict any human bodies, clad or unclad, was surprisingly forced to be withdrawn by ASCI because it allegedly offended the sensitivities of some complainant. Clearly, there will never be a satisfactory middle path when it comes to judging creativity in a country of India’s vast diversity. There will always be skirmishes on the grounds of health, obscenity, religion or culture. But better self-regulation is always better than a new statute if the industry is prepared to re-examine its role, including the role of media buying agencies in demanding editorial coverage in return for advertising.


• It is felt that the advertising industry ignores complaints of misleading ads

• Consumers groups have been pressing for statutory regulation for advertising

• They say the ASCI doesn’t have the teeth to ensure advertising standards


This growing influence of advertisers in dictating news content is evident in hyped realty prices and in ramping up share prices of dubious companies, or those planning to raise public money. This is always difficult to prove. The Securities and Exchange Board of India (Sebi) recently issued notices to India’s largest publishing group regarding a report (that the industry knows is paid content), whose statements were not part of the company’s public issue prospectus. While Sebi’s powers on this are a little weak, the consumer affairs ministry is concerned at the implications of misleading readers/consumers through such tricks, especially if it leads to price bubbles in stocks and essential commodities.


Fortunately, the ministry is not keen to rush in and regulate through statute. It wants the industry to improve self-regulation. At a workshop in Mumbai last week, conducted by the Consumer Education and Research Centre (Cerc), Alka Sirohi, additional secretary in the ministry, said she was in favour of “effective voluntary control,” but also made it clear that, “if the Advertising Code needs to be overhauled, please do it. It has to keep pace with the times.” Moreover, if 20% of stakeholders ignored ASCI’s rulings, then it was still a large number, given that 20,000 hours of advertising is beamed annually at consumers by a booming media.


Speaking on behalf of the Advertising Agencies Association of India (AAAI), V Shanta Kumar, CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi, proposed actions on behalf of the industry such as the willingness to adhere to a comprehensive code of conduct administered by a self-regulatory body, assurance that all members of AAAI would comply with its directives and limited pre-vetting of ads (e.g. baby foods). AAAI would also conduct a nationwide education programme to sensitise stakeholders and familiarise them with the various laws, codes and regulations governing advertising.


This is an important beginning. The tricky part will be to hammer out a comprehensive advertising standards code acceptable to all—ad agencies, consumer groups, the media and advertisers.


-- Sucheta Dalal