Prachi Srivastava

"Now that MIB is actively involved, we feel strengthened": Shweta Purandare, ASCI

The Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) has always had the backing of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB). But it has begun to sharpen its claws only recently courtesy the latter's recent advisory that requires TV channels to stop broadcasting teleshopping advertisements that ASCI has ruled to be in violation of its code.

We caught up with Shweta Purandare, secretary general of ASCI, in her Mumbai office. She spoke about the need to tighten the noose around telemarketers and broadcasters' necks, viewer lethargy when it comes to lodging complaints against ads, and how having MIB on its side makes the ASCI feel stronger than ever. Edited Excerpts:

Edited Excerpts

What prompted the recent advisory for broadcasters?

MIB had issued a generic advisory back in 2013 wherein it was mentioned that advertising products claiming to have miraculous properties or ads that propagate superstition should not be aired by channels. It was not specific to a product or ad. Though we had been receiving complaints - and the decisions were being communicated to advertisers and channels - the implementation was not happening.

So instead of sending one complaint at a time, we compiled complaints against 45-46 teleshopping ads and sent those to the MIB, telling them that the complaints have been upheld but that we don't have any power to stop it. The MIB took it up in the IMC (Inter-ministerial Committee) and then the advisory was issued.

It's good support for us. Now, the MIB has clearly stated that the ASCI's decision should not be violated. Perhaps it was necessary to reiterate the guidelines.

Has this strengthened ASCI?

The MIB has always been supportive. But what is happening now is that because the ministry has made this advisory publicly available, it's obvious to everybody. Some advertisers, completely unaware of the ASCI, used to raise questions about our authority. But now that MIB is very actively involved, we feel strengthened. I think that will have cascading effect in the days ahead.

We are planning to have an online training programme, which will be available to the creators of ads, their agencies, media houses, so that the people they hire they understand ASCI and keep a check on things while making ads.

The Broadcasting Content Complaints Council (BCCI) already requires broadcasters to worry about the content of the programmes they air. Is it really their prerogative to worry about the ads too? Isn't it solely the advertiser's prerogative to abide by ASCI's guidelines?

We are in close touch with the Indian Broadcasting Foundation (IBF). They have told us that they have informed their members to abide by the advisory. Every channel has its dos and don'ts. The onus is on the advertiser to see that they are not violating ASCI norms. Having said that, I'll add that it is a joint responsibility.

As per the Drug and Magic Remedies Act, advertisers should not be making ads that violate it. Carrying such ads is also a violation of the law. By issuing an advisory, the ministry has made it very clear so that there is no room for confusion. It is as good as a directive.

And 'TVC compliance' is 100 per cent (that is, once an ad is found objectionable, the advertiser complies and revises it/pulls it off). For teleshopping though, the MIB has concerns and they are tackling it in their own way.

All big players are complying with our code. There are small companies where the issues are coming up. But the ministry is looking into it. The government has an awareness campaign called Jaago Grahak Jaago that aims to create awareness about consumer rights.

Now, the EMMC, (the Electronic Media Monitoring Centre) of the MIB also monitors things. This is the ministry's mechanism to screen TV content. Wherever it is ad-related, they forward the matter to us. We are closely interacting with them, including with the director of broadcasting division, Neeti Sarkar.

Once we uphold a complaint and ask the advertiser to comply, in most cases they do comply. Barely seven to eight per cent of them refuse to comply. That's when we report these violations to the concerned regulatory authorities.

Against what kind of categories do maximum complaints come?

Those related to magic remedies - Yantra-tantras for good job and luck, weight reduction, products meant to enhance sexual pleasure.

How many complaints does ASCI need to get against an ad before it is officially declared objectionable?

Even if we get even one complaint, if it's a valid one, we process it. At times, there can be more than 50 complaints against an ad but we might not uphold it if it doesn't violate our code.

Also, we do not entertain anonymous complaints. We have to have certain details like name and contact number. We take every precaution to protect the identity of the complainant so he/she can complain without fear. We keep them posted at every stage of process.

Lastly, what prompted the need to issue a new set of guidelines for fairness-related brands?

Chapter three of ASCI states - 'No advertisement should be permitted which derides any caste, race or colour. But regardless of that, we saw some communication that didn't follow this. For instance, a particular teleshopping ad was found to be blatantly playing up on people's insecurities about colour. We received a few complaints from consumer organisations. There was an NGO that asked us to ban all fairness products.

ASCI is not into whether a product should advertised or not. What we look at is how the ad should be. Advertisers (marketers of fairness products) have efficient creative agencies on board. They will have to think out-of-the-box to communicate the product benefits without violating the ASCI's code.

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