FairPlay, Parimatch, and 1xBet promote themselves as news platforms but they are betting companies.
Surrogate advertising is en vogue again. Only this time, it is betting companies masquerading themselves as sports news platforms than alcobev brands selling music CDs, glassware, and packaged drinking water.
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.
Starring actors Ranbir Kapoor and Kiara Advani, cricketers Mithali Raj, Eoin Morgan and Sunil Narine, shuttler Saina Nehwal, and boxer MC Mary Kom, the ad uses the keep going trope commonly found in sports-related commercials.
“FairPlay News is one of the most comprehensive news network organizations, with exclusive access to various sports activities & sporting events,” reads the brand’s Instagram bio.
However, a cursory online search reveals FairPlay as an online betting site where you can not only stake your money on sports such as cricket, football, tennis, and events like horse racing, but try your luck in games like poker, blackjack, teen-patti, andar-bahar, roulette, and baccarat.
Betting is illegal in most parts of India. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, in June 2022, issued an advisory to the print and electronic media asking them to refrain from publishing advertisements of online betting platforms.
“The online and social media, including the online advertisement intermediaries and publishers, are advised not to display such advertisements in India or target such advertisements towards the Indian audience,” it added.
Such an advisory was issued because “advertisements of online betting promote an activity which is otherwise largely prohibited and poses significant financial and socio-economic risk for the consumers, especially youth and children.”
Thus, it is not surprising to see these companies place their bets on surrogate advertising to promote themselves.
The latest TAM Sports report revealed that the ecom-gaming category was the top advertising category during IPL 15, while it ranked second in IPL 14.
FairPlay news is not the only name to have indulged in surrogate advertising. There is Parimatch, an international sports betting company headquartered in Cyprus, Europe.
It promotes itself in India as Parimatch News and runs a website where one can read sports such as football, cricket, kabaddi, and others.
Adding to this list is 1XBET India whose advertising has appeared on TV screens during the ongoing Asia Cup; a banner on the bottom of the screen when a boundary is hit.
It, like other betting platforms, has branded itself as a news platform - 1xBet Professional Sportsblog. Cricketers Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina are endorsers of this sports blog.
Surrogate advertising is a style of advertising where a banned or heavily regulated product is promoted by highlighting another category.
The more people see the ad from FairPlay News or a banner of the 1XBet blog, the more it is ingrained in their minds and they are more likely to search for it and are led to the actual product - the betting platforms.
The government of India, in June 2022, imposed a ban on surrogate advertising. “No surrogate advertisement or indirect advertisement shall be made for goods or services whose advertising is otherwise prohibited or restricted by law…” read the advisory detailing the new guidelines.
Also, in June 2021, the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), India's adland observer, had made it mandatory for influencers to disclose a promotional post to put an end to misleading ads.
Despite the prohibition on betting adverts and surrogate advertising and guidelines to discourage misleading communication, the likes of FairyPlay News, Parimatch News, and 1XBet exist and seem to be thriving.
afaqs! asked three experts about their views on it
Naresh Gupta, co-founder and CSO, Bang in the Middle
When liquor can do surrogate, pan masala can do surrogate, why will gambling be far behind? The 'sin' categories have a lot of money, and the legal framework is not as clear as it should be. Also, news has no shape or form, so launching a news website or app or service is relatively easy. I think we are about to witness a lot of brands in liquor brands about to launch news sites
Sandeep Goyal, managing director, Rediffusion
Wherever there is ambiguity and loopholes in the law, clever brands will find a way to exploit them. I don't think the ingenuity of the brands is to be blamed. It is the fault of the powers that be who willingly or unintentionally leave apertures for exploitation.
Fantasy leagues are today big monies. Various courts and governmental bodies have passed judgments which are at cross purposes. Deviant brands can use this cross interpretation of the law to their advantage.
Paritosh Joshi, principal, Provocateur Advisory
Betting is a category which the law prohibits from being advertised. Doing so is not merely a violation of ASCI guidelines but could well be illegal.
If ASCI receives a complaint, it will go through the normal process and evaluate it. And if the problem is believed to be widespread, ASCI will figure out an appropriate way forward. In the past, in other situations, it has sometimes led to the issuance of new, subject-specific, guidelines.
Speaking about the broadcaster, Joshi said:
Sports channels generally belong to big networks, all of which have a well-established, punctilious Standards and Practices (S&P) team. These teams are responsible for ensuring that nothing, content or advertising, that is, prima facie, against the letter of the law or applicable rules, fetches up on air.
Now, whether they necessarily go into the spirit of the rules of the law is harder to say, unequivocally.
The brand extension caveat
While the powers to be imposed a ban on surrogate advertising, a bit of confusion exists around brand extensions. In this case, there are pages or a site from the above mentioned brands that talk about sports.
The guidelines read: Provided that mere use of a brand name or company name, which may also be applied to goods, products or services, whose advertising is prohibited or restricted, shall not be considered to be surrogate advertisement or indirect advertisement if such advertisement is not otherwise objectionable as per the provisions set out in these guidelines.
ASCI states that for a brand which is in the market for over two years, the following condition is levied: Sales turnover of the product or service should exceed Rs 5 crore per annum nationally or Rs 1 crore per annum per state where the distribution has been established.
For brands younger than two years, there are separate guidelines that you can read here.
When asked about this conundrum in June 2022, Manisha Kapoor, secretary-general and CEO, of ASCI, said, “The issue of surrogate advertising, which is disallowed by law, versus brand extensions, which are permitted by law, is a grey area. ASCI, in consultation with the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) and CBFC, has laid down some objective criteria to separate the same.”
The ads might continue but the government has doubled down its stance on surrogate advertising. In, August 2022, the government cautioned the advertisers’ associations that failure to ensure strict compliance with the guidelines would lead to stern action against the violators.
A relevant note here is that in a decision of the Delhi High Court titled TV Today Network Limited v. Union of India, on 15.2.2021, the petitioner was directed to run a 10-second apology every hour between 8 AM to 8 PM on two days for airing a surrogate advertisement and violating the advertising code.