In what will be a significant jump for the Advertising Standards Council of India, the ad regulator will now work closely with the Department of Consumer Affairs, Government of India, to clamp down on ad violations.
This is for the first time that the two, both with the goal of ensuring the welfare of consumers, will work together, say persons in the know.
This is also the second government department after the Information & Broadcasting Ministry, with which ASCI will have a close collaboration on ad regulation. Thanks to its association with the I&B Ministry, the ASCI Code was made part of the Cable Television Networks Act (1995) seven years ago, making it mandatory for television channels to comply with the body's rules and regulations when broadcasting ads.
The new partnership will expand ASCI's role as a self-regulator.
ASCI has been increasing its purview and is increasingly looking into the implications of imagery. Earlier, it used to focus more on factually-inaccurate claims but now has stepped up its monitoring of themes and their projections through ads, as well (see box).
Increasing its frequency of convening from once a month to once every week, and taking a call on ads within three-four days of their release, ASCI is growing not just nimble-footed but toothy as well.
The body will continue to write to errant advertisers violating its code to modify their ads.
The association with the Department of Consumer Affairs will give ASCI the much-needed teeth that it has been seeking as a regulator.
All ads that violate any law of the land, such as the Drugs and Cosmetics Act, the Drugs and Magic Remedies Act or the Food Safety and Standards Act, will be brought to the governement department's notice by ASCI. Once flagged off by the regulator, the department will swiftly take action against the offenders.
If the ad also falls under the purview of another ministry, say health, it will be quickly alerted so that action can be taken.
"ASCI is a significant stakeholder in an interministerial monitoring committee that has been set up by the Department of Consumer Affairs," says Bejon Misra, a leading consumer activist and expert, who is on ASCI's Consumer Complaints Council, the body that meets every week to look into misleading, false and offensive ads.
Persons in the know say that the 'partnership' would enable stricter enforcement.
"Quite often it would be difficult for us at the Consumer Complaints Council to deal with state regulators or multiple stakeholders when there was a violation. With the involvement of the government at the Centre, this process should now be smoother," Misra says.
A nimbler avatar
In the last few years, ASCI has pulled up its socks - moving from a monthly, fortnightly to finally, a weekly cycle of addressing complaints.
Monitoring levels have improved with the National Advertising Monitoring Service, a tie-up with TAM, in 2012, that scans over 10,000 print ads and over 350 television ads each week. Parallely, ASCI, through awareness drives, has been asking consumers to raise relevant complaints more often.
"Those who wish to complain can send an email, post, call or log on to our online complain system," Shweta Purandare, secretary general, ASCI, says. Apart from consumer, other entities who raise complaints are competitors, social activists and ASCI itself.
Scanning themes, too
ASCI has increased its scrutiny of themes and imagery, too. Apart from wrong claims in price and product benefits, it is looking at interpretations of ads that could raise safety and gender-based concerns. In the areas of education, food, automobiles and even fairness products, its list of flagged ads has only grown longer.
ASCI has moved beyond monitoring facts in ads to assessing their impact on mindsets.
The number of ads flagged has jumped over ten times from about 175 three years ago to 1,937 in the fiscal ended March 2014. Purandare says, "Out of the 1,937 ads complaints last year, 750 were from consumers.
This year in the first half, there were 500 such ad complaints, received from consumers."
Between April and August this year, complaints against over 100 ads of different brands were upheld each month if an average of the first five months is taken into account.
Compliance levels have also improved, says, Purandare, implying that the body, once described as nothing more than a paper tiger, is changing its stripes.
SCANNING THE IMAGERY
On safety -- Hero Xtreme: The ad for Hero Motocorp's Xtreme shows an everyday activity of dressing for work being performed on the bike in an irresponsible manner. The ad contravened Chapter III.3 of the ASCI Code ("Ads shall not, without justifiable reason, show or refer to dangerous practice or manifest a disregard for safety or encourage negligence")
On education -- MET: The ad claims that MET (Mumbai Educational Trust) is ranked the third-best B-School in the pharma sector by CNBC TV18, which is misleading as it omitted the year "2009", in which it received the honour. The ad also claimed "guaranteed 100 per cent placement", which violated the ASCI Code
On food safety -- Amul: The product packaging of the Amul 500-gm butter pack shows a food pyramid with cereals, vegetables and fruits at the bottom of the pyramid, while Amul Butter is at the top. It further claims that butter tops the food triangle which is misleading by implication as it implies butter to be the best among food item
On gender bias -- Top Biscuits: The ad depicts Kunti, from the epic Mahabharata, asking her son Yudhistir to share whatever he has brought with his brothers. Yudhistir angrily agrees to share wife Draupadi but disagrees to share Bisk Farm Top biscuits. Trivialising and ranking biscuits over women were flagged as being demeaning to women in the ad by Saj Food Products
On skin colour bias -- Vivel: The YouTube advertisement (an older ad) derides coloured skin, as a dark girl is shown of not being confident, suffering from an inferiority complex due to her complexion. It shows that only after applying the ITC Vivel's fairness cream, she appears confident enough to sing in public