Shreyas Kulkarni

You can do something more productive with a complaint than a Twitter rant says ASCI's Manisha Kapoor

The body's sec-gen talks about its new campaign that urges consumers to register complaints against misleading ads than ignoring them.

Misleading ads, in a perfect society, wouldn’t exist but that’s wishful thinking. In reality, concerned consumers look up to the Advertising Standards Council of India or ASCI, the self-regulatory organisation of India’s advertising industry.

Established in 1985, it has taken the mantle to investigate ads that consumers have accused of being misleading (ASCI also picks ads on a suo moto basis to investigate) and doles out rulings asking the advertiser to modify or remove said ad(s).

The body had its hands full last year. Thanks to COVID, the economy was shuttered and advertisers wanted to push their wares so we saw all those ads claiming 99 per cent protection against the virus, alcohol brands came under the scanner during the IPL (ASCI has banned 12 liquor brands from surrogate advertising) and whatnot…

So, in January of 2021, the self-regulatory body has launched a new digital campaign wherein it wants consumers to not ignore misleading ads but to go ahead and register a complaint with ASCI. It’s called ‘Chup Na Baitho’.

Manisha Kapoor
Manisha Kapoor

We (afaqs!) spoke to ASCI’s secretary-general Manisha Kapoor on the timing of the campaign, the trend of brands breaking ASCI’s code, and how it maintains equality with the CCPA, among other things.

Edited Excerpts

To urge consumers to register a complaint against misleading ads should be a frequent activity, why choose to do a digital campaign in January 2021?

It’s not as if awareness campaigns have not been done by ASCI. Many years ago, actress Priya Tendulkar featured in an ad as a crusader who does not stand for anything wrong or incorrect. A few years back, we had news channels, as well as other channels, carry a scroll at the bottom of the screen asking viewers to contact ASCI if they watched any misleading ads.

We’ve done these from time to time and yes, we could do them more often. The idea is to turn consumers into our allies and we’d like to point out what kind of ads can be processed under the ASCI jurisdiction. We want to encourage consumers to register a complaint because we don’t want them to ignore a misleading ad when they see one. And to let them know there is a place where they can easily register a complaint and the rest of it is taken care of by ASCI fairly and judiciously.

Today's consumers are time-strapped and the maximum they may do is rant on Twitter, worried they won’t take the time to go and register a complaint?

Our mechanism has become easier over the years. We have an online wing where complaints could be registered, we also have a WhatsApp number on which a complaint could be registered.

You can do something more productive about a complaint than just a Twitter rant. We’ve made it easier for consumers to reach us. Once you register a complaint, we have a few follow-up questions to ensure ASCI has got the correct ad and consumer details and his/her objections about the ad.

Yes, this process takes a bit more time as compared to a uploading a post on Twitter but it is not inordinate. We want consumers to register complaints because that’s how advertising will improve and misleading ads will be put out of the market.

From 99% anti-COVID claims to Sebamed v HUL to the honey gate, it has become a trend to see brands break the ASCI’s code. What’s happening?

When it came to COVID, many brands wanted to take advantage of the panic and fears of consumers and there were quite a few violations… We took up a lot of these ads, we were in close coordination with the AYUSH Ministry to escalate certain kind of ads that fell under its umbrella, and we took suo moto notice of several ads.

Also, we made use of the ‘suspended pending investigation’ process which is quite rare; a few ads made claims that were dangerous so we suspended them before investigation (usually it’s the other way round).

Yes, there is a good amount of misleading ads that are coming into the market but the good news is that when we adjudicate, there is 95 per cent compliance.

Shouldn’t this campaign be also aimed at advertisers? They know what they’re doing and its repercussions and yet they go ahead with it.

Absolutely. Education and adjudication are two sides of the same coin. We need to adjudicate on the complaints we receive and we need to educate advertisers on what the codes are, make them aware of their responsibilities.

See, advertisers who want to stay for the long-term will be responsible for their advertising because they don’t want consumers for this month or the next month. They cannot get away with misleading ads if they want their brands to stay in the market and bodies like us will eventually catch up with them and also, their reputation is at stake. Genuine advertisers are conscious and while they do make mistakes, they comply once an ASCI brings it to their notice.

From in-game to direct advertising online to podcasts, how’re you tackling these new digital advertising avenues?

Digital is where advertising money is being spent in increasing proportions. It is something we’ve been tracking for the past few years and a lot of the complaints we receive are for digital ads.

We’ve not had an issue adjudicating on digital ads. Irrespective of the medium, ASCI has the mandate and wherewithal to look after such complaints. However, we need to understand the nature of digital ads is very different from the ones on TV or print. There are a lot of aspects of digital we’re incorporating into our thinking, into our guidelines, into the way we process complaints, and you will see more initiatives which reflect us looking at digital in a big way.

The CCPA and ASCI operate in the same space and have similar job roles, how do you manage equality?

The CCPA has a wide range of roles like looking at product and service deficiency where money transactions may have occurred, complaints regarding those are important to cover.

It also has the mandate to look at misleading ads and we’re in close conversations with it on best practices, on how do we work together because we have a common objective – to protect consumers.

We’ve worked closely with the government in the past few years. Recently, three government ministries (IB Ministry, IT Ministry, Dept of Consumer Affairs) endorsed the gaming guidelines we introduced in November.

You said the ‘Chup Na Baitho’ is a digital campaign. But, can we expect to see digital or prints ads on it?

In phase one, it’s a digital campaign. If the campaign does well and resonates with people, we will look at all possible ways of making sure we take it to as many people as possible. We will keep adding media options to the campaign with time.