With the Government's decision to form the National Consumer Protection Agency (NCPA) to govern Indian advertising, mixed reactions are what we get when we try to ascertain from agency heads what they make of it.
To put things into perspective, NCPA is the Government's way to legally regularise advertising, and take stringent, forceful, legal action against advertisers/agencies who fail to comply with prescribed guidelines. One could argue that the self-regulatory Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) pretty much does the same thing, and in 2006, was even given 'legal recognition'.
However, over the past several years, the industry at large has questioned the effectiveness of ASCI when it comes to the implementation of its decisions. Will the NCPA then step in as saviour - and one with more legal prowess? Or, will the presence of another body lead to bureaucracy? Here's presenting some initial reactions from the industry:
The NCPA would probably function like a Censor Board for the ad industry, which means there will be an axe on the bad as well as some of the good. Over the years, ASCI has been hijacked by some powerful, influential marketers. In a matter of speaking, some of them get away with murder. What tends to happen is that action is often taken against small time companies. ASCI has become a forum where one can get ads suspended occasionally, provided the parties involved agree, and it may not be effective enough in terms of pulling up false claims. Unless the advertiser agrees, there's little that ASCI can do.
As a body, ASCI did get legal recognition in 2006, but the effectiveness of this is rather questionable. Advertisers and agencies tend to follow the far more regulated IRDA norms. The I&B Ministry steps in for highly sensitive matters, where society is likely to be influenced negatively.
There is a fair amount of dishonesty in Indian advertising and ASCI-like bodies work only if a powerful, collective will binds it, else it lands up working only for vested interests.
For a democratic economy like ours, the formation of an NCPA may not be a great thing. The ad industry in India is anyway fragmented; without a powerful representation of the industry in government bodies (unlike the way it is with broadcasters), our voices won't be heard.
The way I see it, advertising in most cases is looking at building imagery for a brand/company and painting a future for it to win consumer hearts. I think most of the professionals in the advertising field are responsible enough.
In medical and legal arenas, too, one has quacks and serious practitioners who work in the ambit of clear guidelines. That's true of our industry as well; there are the responsible practitioners and there are the minority defaulters. Agencies don't create in isolation - they do so to deliver value to clients, and there are too many filters that go into the process.
Any legal body set up to regularise advertising must understand the implications of this business. Media and its consumption itself are changing. There are so many different constituents that decide the way this industry operates. The nature of the medium should be understood by the concerned legal body. A fair representation of the industry should be there in the NCPA. However, this shouldn't be on the higher side. Else, the legal body will become a victim of lobbying and vested interests. There should be a fair balance.
To be honest, we're a responsible industry and have been operating in a fairly self-regulatory manner. ASCI consists of advertisers and media professionals too, apart from agencies, so it seems to be a fair representation. If you ask me, there are few and far between cases of defaulters.
A legal body's intent should be to strike the right balance between perspectives and add value. It shouldn't lead to a further complication of matters, as opposed to solving them. There is no point in having too many regulatory frameworks. To me, the media industry is doing a fantastic job of taking various perspectives into account.
I am a firm believer in self-regulation. Any professional industry should be allowed to self-regulate. The government should step in only when there is a refusal by any of the parties to comply with the set guidelines.
We are not a bunch of irresponsible people - we're professionals who wouldn't want to harm consumers and society in any way. I am an ASCI board member and we do force agencies and clients to stick to rules and comply with ASCI decisions. I understand that the grouse earlier was that the process for effective implementation took too long, but now it happens within 15 days. In fact, China has borrowed from ASCI to set up the country's guidelines to advertising! Every system has its flaws, but ASCI seems to be doing a rather good job.
It's worth watching how the upcoming NCPA and ASCI will work together. For now, it's wait and watch.