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The Consumer Protection Act 2019 will only raise standards of advertising, says Subhash Kamath, ASCI Chairman

BestMediaInfo.com interviewed the newly elected ASCI Chairman Kamath, who is also CEO of BBH India and Publicis Worldwide. He talked about his vision for ASCI, the watchdog’s scope of authority after the formation of Central Consumer Protection Authority, advertising during Covid and much more

“This is a new era of consumer protection and we welcome it. The new rules will only raise the standards of advertising. We don’t believe they will hinder creativity. In fact, by ensuring these protections are in place, we will only see a rise in it,” says Subhash Kamath, CEO of BBH India and Publicis Worldwide, who was elected as the new Chairman of ASCI last week, about the government’s new advertising watchdog.

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The government recently formed the Central Consumer Protection Authority (CCPA) under the Consumer Protection Act 2019, which has the authority to penalise defaulting advertisers, whereas ASCI can only ask defaulters to rectify misleading ads and not penalise them. This made the industry question the authority of ASCI in front of the CCPA.

Kamath clarified, “The ASCI code covers misleading claims, indecent, offensive messages, unsafe and harmful products/situations, and unfairness in competition advertising. The Central Consumer Protection Authority will only look at the first chapter, misleading ads. There are three others that the ASCI code deals with and will continue to do so.”

He said, “We’ve always said we welcome CCPA’s formation. We’re hoping they will partner with ASCI just like the Department of Consumer Affairs has over the past five years. On TV ads, the Cable TV Act’s code requires all ads to be in compliance with the ASCI code, which means that if a complaint against a TV ad is upheld then that ad cannot be broadcast.”

In an elaborate interview, Kamath also expresses his views on his vision for ASCI, his take on the watchdog’s scope after CCPA’s formation and advertising during the Covid era.

This year has put extra responsibilities on your shoulders. First, the combined responsibility of Publicis Worldwide and BBH. And now, leading ASCI as Chairman. How challenging is it going to be?

I believe in the cause of ASCI and I am passionate about advertising too. As far as I’m concerned, the two functions complement each other. It certainly will be challenging to manage both, but I have superb teams at the agency as well as at ASCI. So, I don’t anticipate any problems.

You have been in the ASCI system for long. What are the things you already have in mind to implement immediately after becoming the Chairman?

This is a world vastly different from what it was even a year ago. It’s a post-Covid-19, digital world. The business, marketing and social contexts have been altered. All this makes it imperative for everyone to be more responsive and responsible. ASCI, like other organisations, must continue to be future facing and staying relevant in changing times. We must continue to build on our past milestones, as well as work hard to take our work to the next level.

Collaborations across different stakeholders, making ourselves technologically savvier, will be some key objectives so that we are able to address the opportunities of the future stronger and better.

In terms of the regulatory context, we have a new consumer protection law and the Central Consumer Protection Authority. Therefore, the context in which ASCI functions has also been transformed. All this makes it imperative for us to think hard about codes, guidelines, regulations, etc. We will build on our past work. The question is what should we do to take this work to the next level?

I’d love to see the Consumer Complaints Council and board members working more closely together. The intellectual debate that would follow would raise the quality of decisions and the standards of internal working.

The government has formed CCPA, which can even penalise defaulters. At the same time, ASCI can only ask defaulters to rectify misleading ads. It looks like CCPA is overshadowing ASCI and can address complaints directly. Shouldn’t CCPA entertain complaints only via ASCI, else the whole purpose of ASCI will be defeated?

We’ve always said we welcome the CCPA’s formation. We’re hoping that they will partner with ASCI just like the Department of Consumer Affairs has over the past five years. On TV ads, the Cable TV Act’s code requires all ads to be in compliance with the ASCI code, which means that if a complaint against a TV ad is upheld then that ad cannot be broadcast.

As far as having teeth to our working is concerned, you only have to see our track record for proof of our effectiveness. Would we have survived and evolved for 35 years if we didn’t deliver? The high level of trust we enjoy within the industry, among consumers and even within the government, are testimony of how well we have done. One of the reasons for this is that our redressal mechanism is very effective. It’s easy, it’s fast and it’s extremely reliable because our Consumer Complaints Council consists of nearly 60% of civil society, non-industry members. That’s why we have a voluntary compliance level of well over 90%. Why would all major agencies, advertisers and consumers repose their faith in us if our philosophy of self-regulation didn’t work?

Many in the industry do not want a separate advertising regime to comply with and were happy following norms set by ASCI. What are your viewpoints on ASCI being given more power just like the CCPA? Like this, the industry won’t have to comply with the rules of two separate watchdogs, i.e., one self-regulatory and industry-driven, the other by the government.

ASCI code covers four chapters: misleading claims, indecent/offensive messages, unsafe and harmful products/situations, and unfairness in competition advertising. The Central Consumer Protection Authority will only look at the first chapter, misleading ads. There are three others that the ASCI code deals with and will continue to do so.

Let’s consider misleading claims too. Last year, 82% of the complaints ASCI processed against misleading claims came out of our National Advertising Monitoring Service (NAMS). Through it, we monitor print, TV and now media for misleading ads. ASCI will continue to process complaints picked up via NAMS. Even intra-company complaints, including fast-track requests, should continue to come to ASCI.

Most countries have Consumer Protection Regulators such as Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in US, Office of Fair Trading (OFT) in UK, Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) but advertising SROs in all these countries thrive and grow because they deliver quick and fair redressal on consumer complaints.

Some people say the new draft of advertising guidelines is a setback for ASCI’s efforts over the years. How would you react to this?

Absolutely not. Like I said, we welcome the new law and look forward to working with CCPA. I’ve explained above how ASCI’s functioning will be unaffected.

Brands react to consumers’ demands. These days the demand is of products that build immunity, help protect from Covid and keep people healthy and active. To meet these needs, many companies have launched brands and made misleading claims like anti-Covid clothes, masks, fabrics, towels, medicines, boosters and others. ASCI raised voice against such claims, but these product launches and advertising have not stopped. Do you intend to take stringent specific steps in this direction?

We already are. We worked with the Ministry of Ayush that needed help in identifying such claims and acting against them. Fortunately, we have a very high level of compliance – last year it was 98%. What we are also doing is stepping up the monitoring. We now monitor 3,000 digital platforms in addition to TV and print to spot misleading claims. So, we now cover 80% of India’s media spend.

Do you think the job of creative agencies has become difficult after the new advertising guidelines set by the government of India? Especially for the brands that also have to mention disclaimers in a 30-second TVC along with the brand message.

No. This is a new era of consumer protection and we welcome it. The new rules will only raise the standards of advertising. We don’t believe they will hinder creativity. In fact, by ensuring these protections are in place, we will only see a rise in it.

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