Ananya Pathak
Points of View

Does Indian advertising need more policing?

Advertising regulations in India are overseen by ASCI. The government has decided to ramp up the scrutiny on misleading food ads and will set up a committee for the same. Here's how Suraja Kishore, chief executive officer, BBDO, India; Kiran Khalap, co-founder and managing director, chlorophyll and Ajit Narayan, chief marketing officer, Socxo, feel about it.

Objectionable Ads? Complain to The Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) 7710012345 ascionline.org”.

In January 2019, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) issued an advisory to all TV broadcasters to carry the ASCI scroll for grievance against objectionable advertisements. The 1985 founded Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) focuses its efforts towards establishing better compliance in the industry which ultimately results in protecting consumers from misleading advertisements. In its 33rd Annual Report (2018-19), ASCI revealed that in the month of March (2019) alone, it received over 900 separate complaints for a couple of ads.

Even as the self-regulatory body stands firm, the Government of India has reportedly decided to set up a committee to scrutinise and regulate product-feature claims made in advertisements, through the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI). What is noteworthy is the fact that FSSAI guidelines for advertising regulations are already in place.

The committee will screen ads across TV, digital and print to check the credibility of claims (evaluating nutrition, dietary and non-addition claims) by companies and the use of words like 'natural', 'pure' and 'fresh'. The parameters are based on the recent ‘Food Safety and Standards (Advertising and Claims) Regulations, 2018’ which came into effect in July 2019.

The announcement by the government makes us wonder if Indian advertising needs more policing and if this kind of scrutiny is warranted? We reach out to experts from the industry to understand the same.

Here's how they feel about the added layer of scrutiny on ads:

Edited excerpts:

Suraja Kishore, chief executive officer, BBDO, India

Isn’t it ironical that we can track our pizza but we can’t track the safety and nutrition of that pizza?

Rise of private labels on e-commerce sites, deluge of food and flavours on the shelf and confusion around what’s food and what’s superfood demands that there is stringent scrutiny and compliance. Case in point is claiming ‘organic’; standards and testing methods are so weak that anything and everything is being passed off as organic. We need to go back to the drawing board to redefine standards and benchmarks with no loopholes. Simultaneously, we need to create awareness about what’s acceptable and unacceptable.

Suraja Kishore
Suraja Kishore

I don’t see it as over policing since ASCI and FSSAI have different jobs to do. FSSAI ensures honesty, responsibility, decency and fairness, whereas FSSAI has to ensure standards and hygiene of food that’s being sold to us.

Kiran Khalap, co-founder and managing director, chlorophyll brand consultancy

If this is by FSSAI and it extends beyond advertising to packaging as the article claims, then it is a welcome move.

Because this goes beyond the current focus of ASCI, which usually scrutinises claims made in mainstream advertising.

Kiran Khalap
Kiran Khalap

Second, if the idea is to study unsubstantiated claims by SMEs in semi-urban and rural areas, that too is welcome, since consumers in these areas may not be as questioning of advertising as those in cities.

Ajit Narayan, chief marketing officer, Socxo

ASCI already exists and is actively taking part in complaints that are lodged with them about false claims. As per reports, they have upheld the complaints. More so, ASCI also has an MoU with FSSAI specifically for monitoring ads related to food safety claims and compliance. To that end, ASCI has been quite successful in pulling down misrepresented ads if one were to go by the reports that are published.

Ajit Narayan
Ajit Narayan

At this point, I am not clear as to the legal authority of ASCI to officially clamp down on ads. If it is self regulated, then there's a grey area around which advertisers could get away and not do any corrections at all. However, is setting up a government cell for regulation of ads the direction to take? How will that solve the problem? What if politics started influencing advertising and media? Would there be fair and square resolutions? Would we be forced to accept because the government had a say in it?

With the current wave of social media towards the spread of fake news as authentic stuff and that too in a country as diverse and populated as ours, would a government panel be able to do what's needed? Has FSSAI been able to control products at source? There have been slip-ups there as well with CAG rapping them over licencing and poor quality of labs.

I think what's needed is probably empowerment of a system that's at least showing some results. In this case, ASCI. Empower them to get the errant advertisers to pull down the ads formally. This also puts responsibility on the ASCI to move from the easy phrase of a "self regulatory body" to that of a formal institution, closer in line to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) of USA.