Benita Chacko and Shreyas Kulkarni

Cricket, the most attractive vehicle for surrogate advertising?

The top two TV advertisers for IPL are from gaming and pan masala, and betting apps are using the league to popularise themselves on digital media.

The shadow of surrogate advertising seems to have grown darker right as one of cricket’s crown jewels, the Indian Premier League (IPL), started its annual sojourn on the game’s calendar during the summer.

Started on March 31, 2023, the marquee T20 league, saw ecom-gaming and pan masala emerge as the two biggest advertiser categories on TV during its first seven matches with a 34% ad volume share, up by 10% from IPL 15 in 2022 as per TAM Media Research, a television audience measurement firm.

Vimal and Kamla Pasand are two pan masala brands whose ads repeatedly play on the TV broadcast of the ongoing IPL. A litany of Bollywood actors promote the two brands’ edible cardamom pods, but their parent companies are known to sell pan masala containing tobacco.

These ads would fall under the surrogate advertising category if the edible cardamom pods did not exist and the ad was subterfuge, the real intention being to point the viewers’ minds to the pan masala.

“The problem with tobacco (brands) is all of them have an elaichi brand and there is no law in the country which says you cannot have a brand with two products of the same name,” states Sandeep Goyal, managing director, Rediffusion.

Now, this would mean it is not a piece of surrogate advertising.

However, “the pack shown in the ad (Vimal) is not for elaichi but for their pan masala,” claims Naresh Gupta, co-founder, Bang in the Middle stating the ad is nothing but a surrogate ad. “The packs shown in the ads are not available for sale. The brands are subliminally pushing their tobacco products,” states Gupta.

The ads of Kamla Pasand, on the other hand, starring actors Amitabh Bachchan and Ranveer Singh claim it is silver-coated elaichi and, for the strangest reason, have animated the edible pods which fall into the actors’ mouths in the ad.

Cricket, the most attractive vehicle for surrogate advertising?

Then there is a Kingfisher Soda Water ad which streams on JioCinema. It is an ad Naresh Gupta terms surrogate in nature because it is a beer company and they are promoting it through their soda.

Gupta, speaking about these categories, says, “It is for the large audience base. They are very engaged. The streaming platform has reported that there is not too much drop. It is available on both cable and OTT. Brands don't get media properties like this,” he says.

The gaming conundrum

It is important to note the government of India banned surrogate advertising in 2022 when it brought in a new set of guidelines to prevent misleading ads from going on air. Violators stand to face a penalty of Rs 10 lakh for the first offence and Rs 50 lakh fine for subsequent offences.

Gaming, the leading advertising category during IPL 16’s first seven matches with a 20% ad volume share has its share of issues as well. While the likes of Dream11, My11Circle, and MPL whose ads air on Star Sports, the league’s TV broadcaster fall under the skill-based gaming (government-allowed) category, online betting platforms are the real menace.

Despite the Information and Broadcasting Ministry’s June 2022 diktat to all print, electronic, and digital media to refrain from advertising online betting platforms, there has been little to no effect. These online betting platforms masquerade themselves as news platforms and their ads and communications have increased significantly during the IPL.

FairPlay, an online betting platform made rapper Badshah spit out an anthem for IPL 2023. The video is available on the platform’s social media channels.

However, during the Asia Cup cricket between India and Pakistan on August 28, 2022, an ad for FairPlay News was broadcast on the Star Sports network. It starred actors Kiara Advani and Ranbir Kapoor, boxer MC Mary Kom, cricketers Eoin Morgan, Sunil Narine, and Mithali Raj, and shuttler Saina Nehwal.

Then there is Parimatch, an international sports betting company headquartered in Cyprus, Europe, which indulged in surrogate advertising by presenting itself as a news app last year.

What is noteworthy is that Parimatch today does not even care to cover itself as a news platform. A cursory glance at its social media accounts is enough to indicate it is a betting platform. It has also roped in influencers to promote its offering.

1Xbet, another such player, has roped in cricketers Dwayne Bravo and Kieron Pollard to promote itself on social media.

“Advertisers are targeting the younger generation and there is a heavy expenditure when it comes to advertising for these categories,” says Shweta Purandare, an advertising compliance expert and YouTuber.

She says both the gaming and pan masala categories are growing fast because they are “very addictive in nature.”

Ambi MG Parameswaran, a brand consultant, says surrogate advertising should not be allowed and made an interesting point that “a lot of these products like pan masala and gambling are heavily male-skewed products which are why I think there’s a strong presence of these products or brands on the IPL.”

YouGov, a market research firm, in 2022, said: “At 36%, men are more likely to be super fans of IPL 2022 (who watched every match this season), but women are not far behind and three in ten of them (30%) said the same about their viewing frequency of matches.”

Less than a week ago, the Ministry of Electronics and IT (MeitY) said it will introduce a self-regulation model where Self-Regulatory Organisations (SROs) will decide the games which will operate in India. Betting platforms will run afoul of the new rules that were introduced as part of the amendments in the IT Rules of 2021.

Toothless tigers?

A major disappointment is the lack of effectiveness from self-regulatory bodies like the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) and even regulators like the Central Consumer Protection Authority (CCPA) and the various ministries. Surrogate advertising still thrives.

Speaking about ASCI’s performance against these ads, Naresh Gupta says it is not on the side of the consumers. “They are protecting advertisers and advertising agency interests. ASCI can't make these ads disappear. Look at how the government has controlled cigarette ads. If laws are strengthened these ads can be stopped tomorrow. This is not for ASCI to do but needs to be done by the government.”

Unlike ASCI the CCPA has the power to levy penalties. “However, what we are seeing, are only numerous advisories to publishers and broadcast media by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) or gentle warnings via Social Media by CCPA,” feels Purandare.

Agrees Spojro COO Jigar Rambhia. “I think these advisories or self-regulatory things do not work. Either you stop or don’t stop. Advisories are advisories, they are not laws.”

Cricket’s love for the surrogate

It is said Indians will watch an old cricket match with the same intensity as they’d a live match. Thus, it is not surprising to read, as per the Financial Express, cricket is expected to enjoy around Rs 9,000 crore in advertising this year.

14 crore viewers watched IPL 16’s first match on TV while JioCinema claimed over 147 crore views for the opening weekend.

1XBET India’s advertising appeared on TV screens during the 2022 Asia Cup; a banner on the bottom of the screen when a boundary is hit.

“Cricket is extremely popular in India and an IPL-like mega event provides a golden opportunity to reach this target consumer, which also is a captive audience. The advertisers get massive visibility and bang for their bucks,” says Purandare.

And while surrogate advertisers are visible during the IPL, ASCI in 2021 had banned 12 liquor companies from surrogate advertising after receiving complaints against their ads during the 2020 edition of the league, the 2023 Women’s Premier League (WPL), however, faced a step-sibling treatment.

Purandare terms the move by the Board of Control for Cricket in India, to ban WPL franchises from agreeing to sponsorship deals with companies in crypto, gambling, tobacco, real money gaming and the betting sector as “very interesting… So much so for gender discrimination.”

However, there is a point to be made that surrogate advertising is not just cricket’s burden to bear. “I don’t think surrogate advertising is present only on the IPL. I can see pan masala and other gaming advertisers everywhere so it is unfair to say they are only on the IPL,” says Rambhia.

He references pan masala brands endorsing film awards shows.

Surrogate advertising thrives and while the many overseeing bodies have teeth, one waits to see when they will stop growling and go for the jugular. 

Namah Chawla contributed to the story.

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