On June 17 this year, the Advertising Standards Council of India or ASCI, a self-regulatory body that propagates responsible advertising, launched a mobile app. With the catchphrase 'SnapItAndAppIt', it lets consumers vent their frustration with offensive/misleading ads with a few clicks on their cell phones and subsequently get real-time updates, on the same screen, as the complaint is processed.
The premise is: If both take the same amount of time, then why let off steam on Twitter when complaining through the app offers a chance for real vindication? Within a month, the number of downloads crossed 850 (ASCI notes a marked android skew) and over 70 complaints were received via the app.
Sample this: Around a decade back, the Ministry of Consumer Affairs dismissed ASCI's efforts as an organisation that protects consumer interest, because it received complaints against too few ads: just 150 a year.
In 2013-14, a total of 1,937 ads were found objectionable by ASCI. Of these, consumers objected to 785 (compared to just 176 in 2011-12 and 300 in 2012-13) ads. The makers of the remaining 1,152 ads were pulled up proactively by ASCI; these suo moto efforts began as a response to the ministry's criticism.
Today, on an average, ASCI receives about 300 complaints per month. And now, with the app in the picture, and ASCI's newfound digital presence, the number is expected to soar. In fact, of the total number of consumer complaints lodged over the past few years (2,545 in 2013-14 and 2,780 in 2014-15) over 90 per cent have been lodged online. Around two years back, ASCI revamped its website and converted it into a channel through which consumers could lodge complaints.
Interestingly, after the launch of the app, the team noted a marked spike in the average number of monthly complaints received by ASCI, across channels, not just digital ones.
The incoming barrage of complaints has even led to the discontinuation of ASCI's suo moto efforts that were launched as a response to an inadequate number of consumer complaints.
In the past, it was primarily ads from three product categories - education, drugs and medicines and medical clinics - that drew most of the complaints. Over 35 per cent of all the ads complained against during 2013-14 belonged to the education segment and 98 per cent of the time, the complaint was upheld. Over 20 per cent of the ads belonged to the Drugs and Medicines segment (98 per cent upheld) and over 19 per cent to the Medical Clinics segment (91 per cent upheld).
But through ASCI's recently revamped digital channels, complaints against ads from other categories, including FMCG, telecom, durables, food and beverages, brand extensions (surrogate advertising), automobiles, home care, baby care, banking and finance, and e-retail, have begun coming in as well. Interestingly, over the past 12 months, ASCI has observed a fall in the number of misleading advertisements from the education sector.
Also, apart from just print and TV ads, the ads complained against now belong to various media platforms including websites, SMS, e-mailers, radio and billboards. Complaints against mobile app ads and product packaging have also picked up. Overall, the ratio of complaints being upheld versus not upheld is 70:30, at present.
Shweta Purandare, secretary general, ASCI, says, "With the online system in place, we get complaints against ads aired across 'new media' platforms. The reach of ASCI has expanded too; complaints have started coming from newer parts of the country. We get complaints from over 15 states across India. We are now pushing online and mobile to reach remote pockets."
ASCI has also started listening for 'social grumbling' against ads. "Online, we listen for key words like 'offensive advertising' or 'vulgar advertising' and get in touch with people to tell them they can lodge an official complaint..." she adds about her team's newfound focus on social media.
Narendra Ambwani, chairman, ASCI, says, "We were slightly behind time in terms of improving our digital presence, but now we have caught up. Digital and social media are playing a huge role in our administration; brands will get challenged a lot faster now than earlier."
Likening the convenience the "digitisation of ASCI" gives consumers to that offered by modern day digital services like BookMyShow, he adds, "In the past, a person had to be really annoyed and committed to actually make the complaint - download the form, fill it, e-mail ... the anger would dissipate by then. And earlier, you couldn't track a complaint unless you came to our office. Now, we have invested in technology that allows us to maintain a search-able online database." And the app keeps track of a consumer's 'complaint history'.
Now that the number of complaints is poised to grow, the question is: is ASCI equipped to handle the volumes? Wonders Sanjeev Kotnala, founder and head catalyst, Intradia, a management, marketing and brand advisory, "Is ASCI ready for a time when the consumer finally wakes up to the potential and possibilities of its app and the number of registered complaints creates a backlog, virtually bringing the system to a halt?"
"I am expecting complaints to pour in. But the whole thing will backfire if we don't attend to incoming complaints instantly," admits Ambwani. After all, a consumer with access to an instant complaint mechanism will expect instant solutions." As of now, every incoming complaint is fully processed - which means the decision to uphold it or not is taken - within 12 to 30 days.
"There is a mismatch of expectations; complaining consumers expect overnight action whereas advertisers want as much time as possible to make the corrections," shares Purandare, who advocates a reasonable mid-path.
The organisation has made a few changes at the back end. These include more manpower for this resource-intensive work, consequent move to a larger office, faster, centrally interconnected computers and better equipment. By Ambwani's own admission, ASCI, until recently, was operating in "an era from 15 years ago," on the tech-and-gadget front. "You can't have a projector that doesn't let the council read the supers in an ad," he shrugs.
ASCI has become "more corporate". Earlier, the secretary general wore all the hats; now, the organisation has PR, marketing and social media departments. Petrikor is the on-record digital agency. Ambwani says, "We've brought in people who're comfortable with technology. We'll need to keep upgrading our app. That's a major challenge for us." Commercially speaking, the organisation has invested Rs. 30-40 lakh into this revamp exercise, over the last two years. Overall, over the past two years, the organisation's expenses have increased by almost 50 per cent.
Plans to put some money behind promoting the app are underway. Ambwani, by the way, was also involved with the website revamp of the Indian Society of Advertisers (ISA).
Around 99 per cent of ASCI's funding comes from its steadily growing bunch of member companies (including marketing companies, advertising agencies and consulting companies) in the form of an annual membership subscription fee. Of this, around 20 per cent of the income comes from requests for fast-track complaints, also known as intra-industry complaints (HUL lodging a complaint against an ad by P&G, for instance); ASCI charges around Rs. 1-1.25 lakh per complaint. The organisation gets around 20-25 intra-industry complaints per year.
The rest is subscription revenue from ASCI's conferences and grants from the government, a recently added source of income. Just recently, ASCI received its first lot of funding - Rs. 10 lakh - from the government.
What is the motivation for all of this effort? "We don't want to be the 'Gabbar' of Indian advertising," Purandare laughs, adding on a serious note, "Censorship comes in only when self regulation fails." Ambwani seconds that with: "I don't want marketers to be fearful. I just want to convince them to spend their money wisely. Self-regulation is much better than a directive."
The motivation, we gather, is to prevent a scenario in which the government has to intervene. Marketers would rather have the friendlier body, ASCI, do so. "If we don't regulate ourselves, well, then someone else will..." says a youngster in ASCI's new 'About Us' online video.
Ambwani says about the perception game, "Earlier, ASCI was viewed as a 'government body'. The perception was, 'It's an 'industry body' that does stuff to keep the industry happy'." Now, he hopes ASCI will be regarded as an independent body - one that is "ready to challenge companies irrespective of their size and financial status."
Today, ASCI works as the executive arm of the Department of Consumer Affairs. "Our direct affiliation with the government gives us more credibility and puts pressure on advertisers," says Ambwani. If an advertiser refuses to comply with ASCI, the case is passed on to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. This association has helped ASCI crackdown on teleshopping ads that routinely violate ASCI's code.
How does the industry appraise ASCI's efforts? Vikas Mehta, chief marketing officer and president, group marketing services, Mullen Lowe Lintas Group, opines, "I don't believe ASCI should even aim to become a 'feared' entity," adding about its digital initiatives, "Their adoption of technology is a natural progression where they are evolving with the needs of the environment. We've seen a steady increase in the number of cases addressed by ASCI over the last year or so, and expect that number to grow."
Intradia's Kotnala comments, "Social media users are more vociferous in their complaints and appeals. But younger audiences want instant gratification, something ASCI is unable to provide. I would wait and watch to see if this digital endeavor creates any ripples beyond the metros, in ASCI-dark areas."
Sajan Raj Kurup, founder and creative chairman, Creativeland Asia, an advertising agency, is sceptical. "Making it easy for people to complain is not going to get ASCI to be taken seriously. It is only going to create more nuisance value for ASCI," he says.
Instead of focusing on bringing newer complainants into the fold, ASCI ought to work on positioning itself and its role more sharply, believes Kurup. "Digital is a double-edged sword. Ramping up the digital presence without giving a strong, clear understanding of who they are could only look like a burst of naive enthusiasm at best. All 'digital goals' will only add to the cacophony and confuse people," he says.
A Note From the Editor
In an ideal world, an organisation like the Advertising Standards Council of India, or ASCI, as it is better known, ought not to exist. As the body's chairman Narendra Ambwani puts it, "We want more advertisers to show the right behaviour and therefore receive no complaints at all! My biggest fear is - the common man will lose faith in advertising. Brands advertise because people believe them. If people lose faith in advertising, the crores of rupees brands spend on media will go down the tube...";
But an ideal world, this isn't. So ASCI did the second best thing. It made it easier for consumers to complain against ads that rub them the wrong way. At long last, the team launched a mobile application that lets consumers click a picture of an ad, any ad, and dash it off to ASCI. Now, the app may not be the hottest thing on your cell phone, but it's a start.
This initiative does several things all at once. For one, it places a lot of power in the palm of the consumer. Secondly, it adds a layer of authenticity to the process; in the past, people often lodged complaints and deliberately gave the authorities an incorrect cell number. Now, with the mobile device itself as the medium of complaint registration, ASCI can rest assured that the complaint is genuine. "It's like automatic verification," says ASCI's secretary general, Shweta Purandare.
Thirdly, it helps ASCI look 'cool'. The organsisation is finally doing something about the way it is perceived - as a 'fuddy duddy industry body'. Today, the 15 member-strong secretariat works out of an office in Worli, an area many Mumbaikars would love to have printed on their visiting cards. And what's more - on the inside, the office resembles an ad agency.
With good reason, ASCI is expecting the number of consumer complaints to soar. Will it? If it does, is the team equipped at the back end to field such volumes? Time will tell.
But the next time you're irked by a commercial message, go ahead... complain.
ASCI is listening.
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