Prabhakar Mundkur
Guest Article

“Greedy marketers have taken advantage of the pandemic to sell their wares”

According to our guest author, advertising self-regulation has to be pre-emptive in a crisis. Here’s his argument.

Evolved as the ad industry is around the world for setting up ‘advertising self-regulation’ bodies in several countries, they may need to be pre-emptive in times of a crisis.

Advertising self-regulation largely eliminated the need for censorship. By promising to regulate itself, the industry set an example to say that they would take responsibility for staying within the line. Very different from say a country like China where advertising could actually go through censorship. In fact, the Advertising Law is quite draconian and even includes ‘key words’ to be avoided in advertising.

I, for example, had a tough time with a commercial while working in China, that I had produced for one of my brands where a teacher-student interaction could have been considered just cheeky in the rest of the world but was brought down by censorship because it affected the norms of the teacher-student relationship in China. I was asked to modify the commercial.

"But in a crisis most marketers are either tempted to take advantage of the crisis to promote their products or are likely to create advertising that does not follow the social norms on prevention for the crisis."

For another brand which showed couples kissing or coming close to each other in the end of the commercial, I was forced to show two packs of my brand coming close together to suggest a metaphoric kiss between the protagonists in the commercial. Indonesia was quick to pick up my pack shot because a kiss would have gone against their guidelines as well.

Advertising Self-Regulation in a Crisis

In normal times, the practice of self-regulation depends on complaints from consumers and clients so that the regulator can take a view regarding whether the advertising is misleading.

But in a crisis most marketers are either tempted to take advantage of the crisis to promote their products or are likely to create advertising that does not follow the social norms on prevention for the crisis.

COVID-19 is one such example where greedy marketers all over the world have taken some advantage of the pandemic to sell their wares.

For example, the Private Harley Street Clinic promoted its Immunobooster IV infusion linking it to prevention of the coronavirus. In another case Dr. Rita Rakus did the same thing on Cosmetic Medical Advice UK, saying pretty much the same thing on Instagram.

“Greedy marketers have taken advantage of the pandemic to sell their wares”

In another case face mask manufacturers started taking advantage of the pandemic to claim that face masks could prevent the infection.

“Greedy marketers have taken advantage of the pandemic to sell their wares”

Ads that did not follow the social distancing or other preventive norms laid down by the Government of individual countries and the World Health Organisation were also found objectionable by consumers. In the UK, the ASA (Advertising Standards Authority, the ad watchdog in the UK) made KFC pull out their most recent ad which had tight close-ups of people eating KFC and licking their lips and touching their faces. The ad made no mention of coronavirus at all. But because the advertisement went against the community guidelines for the prevention of coronavirus, over 160 consumers complained against the ad and the ASA promptly brought the ad down.

“Greedy marketers have taken advantage of the pandemic to sell their wares”

The problem with one marketer breaking the rule is that other marketers might be quick to follow. One bad example is enough to start a wave amongst marketers to leverage the pandemic. This might mean that advertising self-regulation might have to play a pre-emptive role in warning marketers against crossing the line.

The Committee of Advertising Practice in the UK has been doing that well. The moment they find a marketer breaking the norms they send out warnings to the rest of the industry from their twitter handle.

“Greedy marketers have taken advantage of the pandemic to sell their wares”

Putting all advertisers on notice the moment a particular advertiser breaks the guidelines is perhaps a better measure of controlling misleading ads, rather than waiting for advertisers to make mistakes and game the coronavirus pandemic.