Decades ago, there were ads that actually showed 'doctors' extolling the 'benefits' of smoking. That approach was toned down a bit to what is still practised today - marketers bombarding consumers with scientific jargon around the product. Some of them (in the 90s) had even labelled this method ZEWS, which stood for 'Zap 'Em With Science'.
The Central Government recently announced that a new consumer protection law is on the anvil, in the context of which, PM Modi spoke about stringent provisions against 'misleading ads'. In fact, a Central Consumer Protection Authority will be set up for quick remedial action, as was reported recently.
Currently, the bulk of consumer complaints against advertisements are handled by the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), a self-regulatory body which propagates responsible advertising. The organisation has also been working with the government to this end.
As far as government initiatives go, over the last decade, programmes like 'Jaago Grahak Jaago' and the GAMA (Grievances Against Misleading Advertisements) portal, have been undertaken by the Department of Consumer Affairs (DoCA). The portal which has partnered with ASCI and various industry regulators (food, health, education etc.) is a central registry to assist with complaints.
On the new law, Abanti Sankaranarayanan, chairman, ASCI (2017-18), says that the proposed Consumer Protection Bill recommends that ASCI should be empowered and could be given legal teeth. She asserts that through this, ASCI's role would be formally recognised as the body that facilitates a successful 'co-regulation' model in the country.
"The DoCA has always supported ASCI's role in ensuring responsible advertising and addressing the grievances of consumers against misleading advertisements. ASCI records an 85 percent compliance rate to its recommendations by advertisers. For the remaining, where compliances are not confirmed, we would like the regulators to act," says Sankaranarayanan.
While that's all very well, the larger question here is - Just how much protection does the consumer need from misleading ads? Edited excerpts from what our experts said.
Rahul daCunha, managing director and creative head, daCunha Communications
What's a misleading ad? Just don't buy the product... simple. Someone rightly said - 'Advertising doesn't sell, it just tells you the product is there'. In modern times, there's so much fine print; if people choose not to read it, how is the ad misleading? There's an insane amount of information. If the ad is giving you wrong information about drugs, for example, just ask the doctor. Today Indians are the most careful buyers, be it of medicines, cars or real estate. One can always test any claim.
All advertising is doing is finding sexy, amusing ways to inform. It's just a vehicle. Today on Facebook, every second post is about someone asking for recommendations and feedback on products and places. You can broad-base that to Wikipedia and a thousand more avenues. Even in smaller towns, I feel buyers are very careful with their money.
A misleading ad, frankly, is an oxymoron.
Rohit Ohri, group chairman and CEO, FCB Ulka
A recently concluded IPG Global Consumer survey revealed that India and China were two countries that trusted celebrity endorsements the most.
Obviously, this is a story of two Indias. One where brands are seeing an erosion of trust and the other where trust is still a fixed-deposit. A growing number of consumers trust only their social network. These consumers research information about products, make their own informed choices, and require very little protection as they see through false brand claims and make sure their world does the same.
That said, there is still a large section of consumers who blindly trust brands and celebrity endorsements and it's important that we have legislation that protects them. The government's move to regulate this is welcomed. Their definition of celebrities should include online influencers as well.
Agnello Dias, chairman and co-founder, Taproot Dentsu
As with all laws in India, there is a yawning chasm between passing and implementation. If, like so much of recent corporate discipline, this law can be manipulated by those close to the corridors of power, then it'll be another dampener on the already downbeat economic scene.
As far as celebrity endorsement goes, star members of the government themselves endorse a whole array of advertisements that make certain claims. For example, if claims like Zero Open Defecation are proven to be false, will members of the government who featured in those ads face the same penalty as the law envisages? Will this apply to any nouveau-corporates that are widely perceived as being close to/ part of the ruling dispensation?
The consumer does need protection from misleading advertising, but it should be fair and transparent rather than manipulated. With most laws in our country, the wrong-doers are the second most likely to get stressed. The first are those who do no wrong but fear that laws can be manipulated against them.
Divya Radhakrishnan, founder and managing director, Helios Media
When you are responsible for the administration of such a large and diverse population base, there needs to be all kinds of laws and regulations to ensure that all interests are protected. If anything is placed in a mass-consuming platform there needs to be a check on what is being conveyed.
Yes, self-regulation is the ideal way to ensure that it is taken care of in advertising, as it takes into account all the necessary rights. However, when there is a situation of millions of messages being generated periodically, where creators are not just from leading advertising companies or agencies, then it becomes critical to come up with some more stringent steps to ensure that consumers aren't being misled.
Ironically though, it is the political parties' claims that need maximum regulation.
Pratik Gupta, co-founder, Foxymoron
In the physical world there are enough checks and balances as well as interventions when it comes to such issues, but this is completely lacking in digital. That is quite dangerous as digital allows you to mask reality more easily, whether it's a person or a brand. From a consumer angle, digital is more than 10-years-old, but there aren't enough checks in this space. Even at the larger level, the internet needs to be safer. Laws were required yesterday, not today.
I do feel though, that today most FMCGs and MNCs are strict about the claims they make and go through stringent processes, whether it's beauty or edibles, because regulations are quite strict. But as long as there is no infringement of the right to speech or freedom of expression, the government can provide protection and information that will especially help in the area of counterfeiting of drugs and medicines online.
Also, the market is not restricted to India, and therefore the regulation needs to consider information and communication coming in from other global markets and vendors too.
Shubhodip Pal, chief marketing and commercial officer, Micromax
We support the law proposal to curb false/ misleading advertisements. With the rise of the internet and social media, brands need to very careful with what they are putting out. Any advertising or promotion that manipulates the nature, characteristics or qualities of goods and services, directly impacts the brand's image and hampers consumer trust.
For a technology brand like ours, trust is crucial and a single post/ comment can make or break it, with consumers relying primarily on the internet (for information on handsets). Transparency in advertising is important. Marketers should try to understand factors derived from consumer behaviour that helps build relationships/ trust, instead of manipulating them with false promises. In today's times, they can't be taken for granted, nor are they gullible and being sensitive to this is important for a brand, no matter what stage of its lifecycle it's at.