ASCI and the ever popular debate on 'Truthfulness in marketing'

By Devina Joshi , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Advertising | June 11, 2010
On the occasion of ASCI's 25 year completion, industry folk discussed the importance of truthfulness in advertising at a seminar titled 'Marketing Responsibly'

Ethics in advertising is a topic which was as relevant a decade ago as it is today; perhaps the only thing that has changed is the nature of issues and complaints.

On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), industry folk discussed the importance of truthfulness in advertising at a seminar titled 'Marketing Responsibly' organised by ASCI. In a session moderated by Sanjay Pugalia, editor, CNBC Awaaz, Dorab Sopariwala, consultant and Sumeet Vohra, chief marketing officer, Procter & Gamble Asia presented their perspectives on the matter of ethics in advertising.

& #BANNER1 & #Sopariwala began by stating that ASCI's job is not to 'bash' advertising. "While truth is not relative, ethics and mores are. An ad perceived as obscene in India could well be on a children's channel in the US, and get whiplashed in Saudi Arabia," he grinned. So, clearly, ASCI has several parameters to keep in mind before announcing a verdict on an ad.

He went on to state the most common areas where complaints are received, beginning with the lack of truthfulness. "Advertisers have been pushing their luck with tall claims for quite some time now. Look at the past ads for Manikchand Oxyrich, which defied the laws of chemistry - claiming 300 per cent more oxygen in its bottled water," Sopariwala said dryly. There are many more examples, he said, particularly in the financial space where the fine print is often too 'fine' to read without a magnifying glass. "Fair marketing demands that you don't bury the 'catch' in your claim in the fine print," he explained.

The second matter of concern is public decency - to ensure ads are not offensive to generally accepted standards of public decency. Here, he cited the Amul Macho 'Crafted for Fantasies' ad as a question mark on public decency. Next on his list was plagiarism. "Ideas can be similar, no doubt, but when the execution gets similar, too - that's when one gets uncomfortable," Sopariwala said, sharing the example of a 2007 Nike ad which showed a Nike shoe undergoing a metamorphosis and turning into one trendy shoe after another.

The same idea - and execution - was 'borrowed' in an ad for adidas a few years later. "The adidas ad hit too close to home - this is what irresponsible marketing is about, and that too, from a player in the same category!" Sopariwala exclaimed.

His fourth point was that of surrogate advertising, where the question 'Should products whose manufacture is legal be allowed to advertise, except tobacco?' plagues everyone. Lastly, Sopariwala touched upon ambush marketing, where some marketers tend to push the wrong buttons of their competitors, and where 'how much is too much?' is a relevant question to be asked.

"ASCI has to take care of all these things and it's not an easy task. However, on the positive side, advertisers and agencies are becoming increasingly conscious of ethical advertising," Sopariwala concluded.

Next on the dais was Sumeet Vohra of P&G, who gave the marketers' perspective on the importance of proving one's claim and adding an element of corporate social responsibility across categories. "At P&G, the last few months have had us take a different look at our brands and we are moving from a model of marketing to a model of serving consumers," he said.

This is even more important in today's age as in countries such as Australia, advertising is the least trusted profession, right after used car salesmanship. "Consumers don't want to buy brands; they want to buy into the values a brand stands for," Vohra remarked.

He cited some CSR initiatives as examples of how a brand can go beyond marketing and make a difference in consumer lives. Whisper, for instance, does school contact programmes to educate teenage girls on adolescence and the mixed bag of worries it brings. The brand also conducts 'Parivartan', an initiative for rural India where information and access to sanitary napkins is provided.

Even in the case of disposable diaper brand Pampers, the challenge in India is to deal with the fact that these are considered a luxury in India - which happens to be the lowest consumption market for the category around the world. Pampers undertakes education programmes to make people realise the importance of diapers and their usage, in addition to initiatives like one 'life saving' vaccine free with Pampers.

A marketer, Vohra said, needs to keep certain factors in mind before launching a dialogue with consumers. Firstly, the brand has to live up to its promises, be transparent, contextual and speak in a language the consumer understands. A brand also needs to obey laws and respect local or regional culture. Further, one should be careful of words used in communication.

"Use the words 'new' or 'improved' only when the performance of a product has improved because of something new done to it. Don't call it 'new' without qualification and mislead consumers," Vohra cautioned. Further, if a brand launches what it calls an 'economy pack', then that should truly be the least expensive SKU in its category.

On a final note, Vohra said that while ASCI has done a stellar job of taking up and addressing consumer complaints, the process in which justice is doled out should be made swifter.