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Commentary: ASCI approaching government for condom ads ban is deplorable

What's the point of having a self-regulatory body if it keeps inviting the government to decide on its behalf? Industry mulls over stopping funds to the body unless it adds spine to its approach

No self-regulatory body ever wants the government to meddle in its affairs.

The News Broadcasting Standards Authority, set up by the News Broadcasters Association (NBA), has never referred any complaint to the government. In fact, when the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting decided to ban a Hindi news channel, the NBA vehemently opposed the move.

In a recent interview with Best Media Info, NBA Chairman Rajat Sharma said that the government had no business banning a channel. "The problem arises when the government takes the call," he had said.

Alas, that's not the case with the ASCI. Instead of tackling the complaints regarding condom ads on its own, the body advised the government that the "sexually explicit condom" advertisements should not be shown during day hours. The ASCI didn't stop here. When the government issued the advisory, the body took the credit for such a regressive move that was nothing but a let-down for the entire creative and advertising industry.

“ASCI welcomes the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting’s (MIB) recent advisory on airing of condom advertisements between 10 pm and 6 am.” This was the headline of a chest-thumping press release by the Advertising Standards Council of India, celebrating the ban on condom advertisements on television during daytime as an achievement of sorts.

I found it a grossly misplaced act by ASCI that perhaps did not realise that government intervention is complete shame for an organisation, which is a self-regulatory body.

A lot has been already said about whether the ban was right or wrong; whether the condom brands were crossing the lines or not; whether these ads actually promote safe sex or sell sex; and whether it is a regressive step in the direction of sex education. I’m not getting into all these discussions and rather making a point that how dangerous is inviting the government to interfere in the working of a self-regulatory body, which raises a question on its very existence.

According to the body, it received a slew of complaints against the condom advertisements with explicit adult content being aired during family viewing hours and requested ASCI to declare a ban on these commercials.

On the one hand, the ASCI said that it did not uphold these complaints seeking a ban on such advertisements with the belief that the condom advertisements are promoting product usage, which plays a significant role in curtailment of sexually transmitted diseases and has a larger public service cause. On the other hand, it went on to suggest the government to consider restricting the telecast of "sexually explicit condom" advertisements during watershed hours of 10 pm to 6 am so that exposure to pre-teens could be minimised.

Isn’t it contradicting its own statements, suggesting that the body is now trying to save its face?

When it is being argued that the body could have suggested action only against defaulting ads or repeatedly defaulting brands, ASCI crafted the wordings in its suggestion very carefully. Didn't they know that the government's advisory will impact the entire category considering who will decide on whether an ad is decent enough to be telecast?

Although ASCI Secretary General Shweta Purandare clarified in the press release that condom advertisements meant for family viewing, which disseminate health benefits or propagate information on safe sex practices, the implementation of which can diminish accidental pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) / HIV continue to be allowed to air without restriction, will any broadcaster take a risk to air the condom ad unless it is carrying some certification of decency?

In such a scenario, doesn't it amount to a blanket ban on the category? And if so, how is it a win for ASCI in first place?

Had the government taken a suo moto action in this case, ASCI too would be crying foul and interference in its working. But considering the way it crawled and almost pushed the government to make such a decision, it is highly unlikely that we would have seen any such opposition from the body.

Senior industry leaders whom I spoke to were of the view that if it continues, other categories could face a similar fate in days to come. They pointed out how other categories such as alcohol, sanitary napkins and emergency contraceptive pills have faced ban in the past due to ASCI’s functioning.

It is pertinent to note that the body acts on complaints received from consumers or anyone and the actions are not based on broad surveys from every market or audience segments. Some industry leaders went to the extent saying they would stop funds to the body if it only relies on a handful of complaints, resulting in a ban on an entire category.

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