Shivaji Dasgupta
Guest Article

Can ad agencies hold off on selling fads?

Our guest author says that ads will continue to pamper fads, but some intelligent self-regulation will be loved by society at large.

The latest fall guy of corporate India is the cryptocurrency industry. The jury is out on its legality, profitability and, indeed, the ethical dimensions. But succumbing to yet another majestic honey trap, the advertising industry has already unleashed some highly attractive campaigns.

This is certainly not a novel pattern, this gullibility of the industry to back unsustainable industries and companies, fad possibly being the lightest evil. Those from the 1990s will recollect the gorgeous work for Home Trade, quite sensational in terms of scale and credibility (courtesy of the celebrities), but unfortunately the business bust prematurely. Even the first wave of post-liberalisation private airlines had a fair share of duds, luring customers on the basis of shallow business models, NEPC Airlines come to mind foremost.

One does fear, that in this modern age of cowboy entrepreneurs, we have many more such hidden bad boys on the roster. Yes Bank is a recent example of a colossal breach of trust, as is DHFL. And, while the regulatory environment protects modern investors, the stress points surely multiply manifold. The prolific track record in unearthing scams, may well lead to an unlikely candidate in tomorrow's headlines, already guilty of luring the consumer rupee with ravishing promises.

This, on a milder note, is the story for the express 10-minute deliveries as well, large provocative communication setting exceptional expectations, while rather quickly, the business model changed to 'minutes', without committing the magic number of '10'. Advertising was, perhaps, doubly culpable in this case, announcing the unsustainable lure with a megaphone, while remaining a rather sotto voce about the more flexible subsequent commitments.

From valid experience, I can duly confirm that most agency networks have decent due diligence in place, especially on media liabilities. But that extends usually to the proven liquidity and perceived stability of the business entity. Quite naturally ethics and legality at a larger plane are taken for granted and there is, of course, the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) to bust the unviable performance claims or creative misdemeanours.

But truthfully, nobody in the agency universe can afford either a crystal ball or stodgy criticality when soliciting a business partnership. Exactly why, we are often embarrassed and regretful, when a proposition passionately pitched turns out to be an avoidable fad or an appalling scam. In fact, advertisements by crypto brands have turned out to be among the top five violators of the norms set by ASCI.

So, can the scrutiny mandate of the advertising networks be enhanced without actually jeopardising business growth? Perhaps, a valuable starting point will be past learnings, as in mirroring categories or business propositions that have been dangerous for customer sentiment and, thus, damaging to the credibility of the industry.

Then, have self-regulation, in terms of proposition romancing, so that creative juices do not cause acidity due to over-promise, and this can well become an adjunct agenda of ASCI. Quite simply, we can wait for a cooling-off period for the new age category or a suspicious mega-power to settle in, before we unleash the most seductive forms of propositions. This will further enhance the statesmanship and stature of this often-underestimated industry, acting as a voluntary filter of long-term ethical accountability.

It is neither the fault nor the responsibility of the advertising industry if the cryptocurrency innovation succumbs to regulatory captivity. But somewhere, deep inside, the well-meaning folks who lovingly mine their imagination, will surely endure a mellow tinge of regret. That their supremely endowed powers of persuasion were applied incorrectly, inducing well-meaning folks to part unknowingly with their hard-earned personal corpus. Ads will unavoidably continue to pamper fads, but some intelligent self-regulation will be loved by society at large.

(Shivaji Dasgupta is an autonomous writer on brands and customer centricity)

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