The Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) has released its annual Complaint Insights 2021-22 report, which revealed a 41% rise in ad complaints featuring celebrities as compared to last year. Digital platforms like Instagram, YouTube and other websites accounted for over 48% violative content. Influencers also contributed to 29% of ad complaints taken up by ASCI.
The self-regulatory body for advertising has also widened its technological landscape by adopting an Artificial Intelligence-driven mechanism to keep a check on fraudulent and misleading ads.
Upon being asked as to why celebrities take up misleading advertising despite a lot of complaints against them, Manisha Kapoor, CEO and Secretary-General, ASCI, said “I don't know whether they themselves are aware about the provisions of the ASCI code as well as the Consumer Protection Act which squarely puts the responsibility of making sure that you know they are not indulging in misleading claims.”
Adding to how celebrities can ensure that they do not get roped in misleading ads, Kapoor said, “We understand that celebrities are not experts in the field of endorsing products. The law itself puts the onus on them to at least do their due diligence, and even after doing that, if there is some misleading claim then it is the advertiser who will have to take some action. But at least the celebrity can be assured that they have taken the preventive action which is to do the due diligence by reaching out to an expert or resorting to ASCI’s endorser due diligence service in order to ensure they are not misleading the millions of people who trust them.”
With nearly 75% of the ads taken up by ASCI suo-motu owing to ASCI’s surveillance, consumer complaints have also increased significantly this year, according to Kapoor.
Even though 94% of overall ads processed by ASCI needed some kind of modification at the advertiser’s end, the compliance rate has also been at a high. In terms of non-compliant advertisers, the complaints escalate to different ministries, including the Ministry of Consumer Affairs and Consumer Protection Authority, who then send out notices to the advertisers at fault.
Speaking on how the education sector is emerging as a constant violator of the ASCI code and guidelines, Kapoor said, “Education is a service that goes across to every citizen of this country and particularly in an area which is of very high concern and importance to parents.”
“With the fragmented traditional education sector in the sense that you have coaching classes or private universities or pre-schools or tuition classes with a lot of them catering to local and regional audiences. But they’ve been very misleading in terms of promising things like job guarantees, making claims like they're the number one leading institute without having the correct basis or promising certain marks and that they will clear certain tests, etc,” she added.
While ed-tech comprises approximately 6% of the education claims that ASCI has looked at, the impact is much more because unlike the small fragmented players, ed-tech companies have big budgets and are present on all mediums at a national level. In fact, ASCI is conducting an ed-tech study wherein they are looking at an audit of all the ed-tech advertising that is happening in the country, revealed Kapoor.
Stressing that the guidelines are fairly new, detailed and exhaustive, Kapoor elaborated on how the industry takes some time to understand them and then starts complying. She said, “If the industry behaves in a non-responsible way, it automatically invites greater scrutiny from all kinds of regulators and self-regulators.”
As of now, the ASCI guidelines are subject to review and if the governing body feels there is a big change in the pattern of complaints, the formats of advertising and the evolution of the consumer market, then certainly the guidelines will be reviewed at periodic intervals, according to Kapoor.
Highlighting that ASCI’s purpose is to help companies make good and successful ads which are honest, correct and creative and don’t cause any harm to the consumers, she said, “We are in constant dialogue with all stakeholders, especially the newer industries and associations, or even directly through sound players who are also members of ASCI, in terms of interpretation of the guidelines in terms of what difficulties they may be having and how we can resolve them,” she said.
Signifying the role of publications and platforms who are members of ASCI, the responsibility of making an ad and putting it out to consumers in an honest and fair way comes to everyone who benefits from advertising, Kapoor said, “Be it advertisers, brands and advertising agencies who make the ads or the broadcasters who carry those ads, all of them benefit from advertising and therefore it is their collective duty to ensure that advertising is honest.”
Clarifying as to whether ASCI can take up a consumer’s case if it is already sub-judice, Kapoor said, “If the consumer has filed a case in any court regarding any company and comes to ASCI with the same case, then we won’t take that up since the judiciary has already taken their stand on that but if he comes to us with another case, we’ll surely take that ahead and build a case on that.”
With the advertising industry caught in the misconceptions regarding surrogate advertising, especially after the rolling out of ASCI guidelines, Kapoor said, “The alcohol law and the tobacco laws are very different. While the COTPA bans the advertising of cigarettes and tobacco products along with their brand extensions, the alcohol law doesn’t put a ban on advertising the brand extension, considering that the brand extension is legitimate and should have a certain business threshold in terms of sales. In the case of tobacco, it is not allowed at all but if the base brand is tobacco-free, then the provisions of the COTPA guidelines do not apply to it.”
When asked as to whether ASCI looks at global ad campaigns too, Kapoor replied, “ASCI does look at global ads which have Indian audiences as a target and if there is a significant spill-over then we do take it under scrutiny. Be it influencers or ads that are run off-shore, if they are found to be violative of ASCI’s code, we will look at it.”