The first premise of the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) code is that advertisements must be truthful. As head of ASCI as well as an adman yourself, what is your comment on the level of honesty in advertising that you see today?
In most categories today, advertising involves fierce competition and brands are trying to win by making stronger, more competitive claims. Creativity for these brands can tend to push the borders a bit, which is where the responsibility of self-regulation comes in. Be as creative and persuasive as you want but don’t be misleading or offensive or unfair - those are the ‘corridors of freedom’ that ASCI guides and monitors the industry with. Naturally, there’ll be ads that violate some of these codes. That’s what ASCI is here for.
But happily, we have over 90% compliance which shows that our industry does have a conscience and is willing to correct any violation or wrong messaging. But there are many who are not our members yet and may not have understood the codes clearly. That process of education is an ongoing one.
How have you seen ASCI evolving as an industry body in your second term as its Chairman? What are some of the things that you have set out to do on priority for ASCI 2.0 right now and what are the future-focused plans?
It’s been a fantastic two years at ASCI when I’ve had the privilege of being the Chairman. I’ve had unstinted support and guidance from the Board and a strong partnership with the ASCI secretariat team, led by Manisha Kapoor, the ASCI CEO and Secretary General. We embarked on a strategy, which we internally call ASCI 2.0, to give ASCI a transformative vision. We recognized, as part of this strategy, that a future-facing ASCI should not just police the narrative, but help shape it too. Many of our recent initiatives come from that vision and need consistent focus over the next few years:
Use technology to make our complaints handling process more digital, responsive and agile. We’ve invested heavily in a new digital transformation platform that is very intuitive and responsive now. It uses AI, chatbots etc., which makes the process of lodging a complaint and monitoring it very easy.
Look beyond advertising in the traditional media and develop a strong point-of-view and supervision of the digital and social world of advertising as well. Our launch of influencer guidelines, gaming industry guidelines and crypto guidelines, etc., are all examples of that. We’ve tied up with a France-based AI company to help monitor these social platforms to see potential violations. We also have Google and Facebook (Meta) on our board to advise us with their domain expertise.
ASCI Chairman Subhash Kamath | File
Provide ‘thought leadership’ for the industry and help guide them towards more responsible advertising. Our initiative of ‘GenderNext’ is an example of that; an exhaustive study which not only analyses the gender stereotypes, but also provides direction on how women should be portrayed in advertising. We’re now looking at EducationNext as the next initiative and perhaps The Responsibility of Advertising to Children, too.
Provide services for our industry that help them understand navigate the codes to create more responsible advertising. Our ‘Advertising Advice’ service has started to see a lot of traction. Many advertisers have reached out to us for due diligence of their campaigns before they’re released. We also responded quickly with our opinion on their claims. We now have over 20 technical experts on our panel to advise on claims that are technical in nature. In addition, we’ve also started offering training workshops to our members for a nominal fee.
Be in regular touch with various government offices at DoCA, MIB, etc., to ensure that we work in strong partnership with the regulators.
What would you like to call out as unique or difficult cases that have come up before ASCI’s Consumer Complaints Council (CCC), as well as overall challenges before ASCI over the last couple of years?
In the recent case of Layer'r Shot deodorant commercials, which were in such blatant violation of our ‘offensiveness’ code, we didn’t even wait for formal complaints to come in. We took it up immediately on a suo moto basis and quickly acted upon it.
We also had cases of brands using COVID claims where mattresses, ACs and even a mobile app promised protection from the virus. These were exploiting the vulnerability felt by consumers during the pandemic. So, we had to take this up strongly with the advertisers. Big celebrities are also now becoming more conscious and people are tagging ASCI on influencer posts where the recommended disclosures/ declarations are not there.
Though the Advertising Standards Council of India is more stringent now, what are you doing about non-compliant advertisers and influencers that continue to flout its code?
Like I said before, compliance has been quite high: on TV/Print it’s 98% and overall compliance is almost 94%. The non-compliant cases are escalated to the sector regulators or the relevant ministries and many of them have already sent show-cause notices to those errant advertisers.
What will be your approach to top violative categories, especially education, gaming and cryptocurrency, as reported in the Annual Complaints Report FY21-22?
These are all relatively new categories and the process of education has just begun. In case of crypto, even the sector regulations aren’t set as yet by the Government. I’m sure it’ll all happen soon. Which is why we’re looking at initiatives like Education Next to help influence the education sector better. We’re being very collaborative and inclusive in our approach, through constant dialogue and discussions with all the relevant stakeholders in these categories. It’s not enough to just catch the culprits but to educate and engage them so that a culture of honest brand building and advertising takes roots in these new sectors.
One of the landmark decisions of ASCI in recent times has been to make celebrities liable to due diligence about the products they advertise. How has Endorser Due Diligence taken off?
It’s very much a part of the Consumer Protection Act (CPA). The endorsers of a brand can be held accountable and/or be penalised by law if they’re found to be misleading. But the CPA also states if the endorsers have done their due diligence on the product claims they’re endorsing, it can be viewed favourably. So, it’s in their own interest to make sure that the claims they are making can be proven. They are obviously not technically qualified, so they need to take a neutral expert’s opinion. ASCI’s Endorser Due Diligence service has been welcomed by talent management companies and we expect that the culture of responsibility will also come into the more famous celebrities as well.
What is your view of progress on ASCI’s role to monitor fake reviews on e-commerce platforms?
This is an initiative by the Government and ASCI is part of the committee to monitor the issue on fake reviews. We have been providing our inputs and expertise to the Government.