Shreyas Kulkarni

Have we normalised reckless advertising?

From claiming 99 per cent protection against COVID to offering a one-stop solution to improve immunity, what’s with ads these days?

Many Indians can’t start their day without a steaming cup of tea. But a few got a nice little jolt when they saw an ad in The Times of India from Dabur touting the benefits of its Vedic Suraksha Tea.

The full-page print ad’s copy read: Immunity is the strongest need of the hour. All you need is a cup of tea.

Have we normalised reckless advertising?

At first glance, it may seem like a regular, harmless ad for Dabur’s tea brand. Or not. We live in an era of heightened awareness around health, fitness and immunity. So, was it right for a major brand such as Dabur to tout its tea brand as ‘enough’ for all our immunity needs?

And more worrying is the response of the consumers to the ad. While a good number people wondered if the brand had done due diligence before releasing the ad, yours truly had to go back to a guest article that Amit K Shrivastava, director at Learning Curve, a Gurugram-based brand consultancy, wrote for us on December 7.

His article was on the recent honey purity scandal, and one statement stood out: “As in many other facets of life, data is a weak force against belief grounded in culture and engrained habits, particularly when it comes to food or even food brands.”

The statement is a sharp insight into how an Indian consumer won’t budge when it comes to his or her long-held beliefs, despite credible facts. You take steam inhalation every day because you know it alleviates nasal congestion and will improve immunity… One can’t say if the latter aspect is true or not, and yet people go for it.

Another example is those ‘champis’ using red-coloured oils men take at salons every second Sunday. A study by the Institute of Medical Sciences (IMS) in Banaras Hindu University (BHU) published in The Asian Age in 2017 found the "popular brands of headache relieving oils, advertised as ‘cool cool’, to be hazardous", because of the use of camphor in such oils. Yet, the ‘champis’ don’t stop.

A recent study commissioned by the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) and the Indian Society of Advertisers (ISA), and conducted by Nielsen revealed that “eight out of 10 people trusted advertising messages across media.”

In the last eight months, we’ve been hit with many brands touting their 99 per cent effectiveness in protecting you from Coronavirus. Mattresses, fabrics, plywood, paints… the list continues.

Kaizad Pardiwalla
Kaizad Pardiwalla

Kaizad Pardiwalla, co-founder, Spring Brand Solutions (former COO of the 120 Media Collective and founder of KPC), feels that there needs to be a certain amount of social responsibility and moral obligation in today’s day and age. We know people are so worried about what is happening and “will probably believe any straw you will throw at them.”

If you look at most ads, you will see the ‘real’ facts and disclaimers in the small copy or with the ‘asterisk’, which Abhijit Avasthi, founder, Sideways Consulting, calls "a big manhole for most ads". The advertiser will claim something, but the following conditions apply… “It depends on the conscious of the advertiser.”

Abhijit Avasthi
Abhijit Avasthi

Avasthi thinks ‘reckless’ is a strong word and feels ‘irresponsible’ is a better alternative. You can’t call a brand irresponsible if it says that the ‘tulsi’ or some herb in its tea will improve your immunity and there is medical proof to back it. “The brand is not wrong in saying that, it is just using the current environment and context to put the story out. There’s nothing wrong in that.”

We wondered who has to take the onus for such reckless or irresponsible ads. Is it the consumer, who’s already battling the pains of a pandemic and is more likely to believe what’s being sold… a ‘jaago grahak jaago’ again, maybe?

Both Avasthi and Pardiwalla believe that the consumer is smart enough to separate the fact from fiction. Instead, they feel the onus should lie with the brand.

The responsibility lies with the brand. The agency should at least point out to the brand that as your trusted partners, “it is our job to tell you what you are doing is correct or incorrect…,” remarked Avasthi.

Pardiwalla echoed the same sentiment, “Everyone who is responsible for stewarding the brand or shepherding the brand forward, creating the work, has to have the onus about what they are saying.”

But what can one do about such ads, we pondered... “There has to be self-awareness of what we’re putting out there, how people may react to it, and is it the right thing to do at the right time,” concludes Pardiwalla.