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15 Jan 1997

Ethics in Advertising
Vijay Menon

“Are you willing for the billing?”

S.V.Sista, chairman, Sista Saatchi & Saatchi, and immediate past (1995--96) vice chairman of the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) boils down the ethical dilemma in advertising to this central question.

Ever since a boy recently jumped off a cliff and died imitating the bungee jump in a Thums Up ad, the debate on limits in advertising has taken on a new urgency. Especially in a crunch year when advertising billings have tumbled, media has proliferated, competition has increased, and admen and manufacturers are increasingly desperate to cut through the ad clutter for a share of the consumer's mind.

The industry's answer is unequivocal. 'Advertising agencies are run by responsible people' says Sam Balsara, managing director, Madison Advertising. 'We know when and where to draw the line against unethical advertising.'

A claim that was hotly debated at the first ever workshop on unethical advertising organized jointly by the Federation of Consumer Organizations, Tamil Nadu (FEDCOT) and ASCI at Chennai last week. 'Consumers have been at the mercy of the sellers and the persuaders for the last 50 years' says R.Desikan, chairman, FEDCOT. 'And increased competition among brands only worsens the situation unless the advertising industry regulates itself.'

What is an unethical advertisement anyway ? The ASCI has a well documented code of conduct for advertisements and it boils down to this : Does the ad lie, does it make fraudulent claims or does it violate your sense of decency ?

The industry claims that in a three year period from April '93 to September '96, ASCI received 587 complaints and only 18 ads were found to be in poor taste. 'That's an average of five valid complaints per year' says Balsara. 'Out of the several thousand campaigns that must've been released in that time.'

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' Targeting advertisements at children is another contentious issue. Obscenity.' Raina claims that his company withdrew an advertisement for Amla hair oil after their R&D scientists pointed out that the imagery of leaves falling from a tree suggested that the product would stop falling hair . Dabur India Ltd.an unsustainable claim. you can't go to your agency with a clean brief. there are 10. claims the industry.Rama. 'Unless your products can deliver on the advertised promises. FEDCOT. But ASCI codes can at best be confusing. lawyer and general secretary. 'For every one formal complainant. It was only when the agency appealed to the DDG. lies in the eyes of the beholder. women's rights worker and professor of social work at Chennai's Stella Maris women's college.000 customers who've stopped buying the brand' says Kartik Raina. Not all manufacturers are as scrupulous. a variant of the sanitary napkin from Procter & Gamble with liners on the sides to prevent leaks was initially shot down by Doordarshan Chennai as being vulgar and suggestive of the private parts of a woman's body. But Anand was a chess champion long before this product was developed and presumably had a keen memory even then. often what is hip in Mumbai can be vulgar in Chennai. Not everyone buys that argument. another common flashpoint (remember the to-do over the Tuffs shoes campaign featuring Milind Soman and Madhu Sapre in the nude ?). product manufacturers seem to be increasingly aware of the power of a misleading ad. 'How many people you know who are insulted by an ad know that they can complain to ASCI ?' To be fair.com 2 . makers of a wide range of OTC food and health products. GM (sales & marketing). The ad industry has no qualms about child focused advertising and points to a recent Pathfinders survey that showed that purchase www. is very often a geographical issue. chess wizard Anand Vishwanathan claims to have been benefited by the product. New Delhi that the ad was released for airing in Chennai. Desikan successfully petitioned ASCI that the advertisers of the Thirty Plus capsules had made claims of nervous rejuvenation that were unsubstantiated by research.vijaymenon. Doordarshan. In a recent campaign for 'Memory Plus' a memory enhancing drug. 'Advertisers justify obscene imagery by pointing to our heritage of Khajuraho sculptures' says K. A recent Madison TV campaign for 'Whisper Wings'. Morality. 'Oh yes? Then why aren't women walking on the roads today dressed like those statues ? Even heritage can be vulgar if cited out of context.G. The ad was withdrawn. 'Who's heard of ASCI ?' demands Henri Tiphangne. Notions of propriety vary not just between the West and the East.Activists are unimpressed.

but if we had selective media we'd target our messages precisely to avoid frustrating the have-nots. 'Surrogate advertising works because society--you and I--is prepared to accept lies' says Gautam Rakshit. 55 per cent of motorcycles and 35 per cent of music systems-none of them children's products--were influenced by children. It exists. But the deepest conflicts of ethics stem from tobacco and surrogate liquor advertisements. 'But it does help switch brand loyalty. 'And this segment accounted for sales worth over Rs 1000 crores last year. 'But in a country with such disparities in income and living standards as ours.' Is legislation the answer ? There are a plethora of laws already governing advertising (see box). 'Ah. you are prepared to accept that its okay for me to lie. for instance. Even a one per cent chare of the Indian market is worth Rs 60 crores of consumer spending.vijaymenon. an industry lobby body. Of these. Tobacco Institute of India. A fact that has thrown up a booming practice in surrogate advertising for liquor. an advocate at the Madras High Court involved in civil liberty rights are disturbed by this trend. glasses or casks that are patently too rich in visual and detail for the humble products they claim to advertise. the Indian government derives 15% of its revenues from tobacco.R. But clever people can and do get around the law.' Others like Geeta Ramasheshan. Cigarette advertisements are banned from public broadcast television in India and in all media in Norway. Reason enough for advertising by cigarette manufacturers.' www. we will continue to be subject to the artful persuasion of the tobacco lobby. senior advocate. O&M. 'A quarter of the Indian population is below 14 years of age' says Mohan Menon. Children constitute a powerful sales force. Finland and Singapore. 'Advertising does not create new smokers' claims Amit Sarkar. mineral water. No one is fooled by advertisements for soda water. targeting immature minds to sway purchase decision is unethical.Rao. Thailand.com 3 .decisions of 60 per cent of watches. the CPA is the most potent legislation to combat an offensive ad. There is. That’s debatable. a total ban on liquor advertising in India. Advertising Avenues. managing director. regional director. 'Smoking causes three million deaths annually worldwide' says U. Unless governments decide on what is ethical or not. Selective media addressing only a pre determined audience would be too self limiting for a mass marketer. 'The problem is. Advertisement did not create this market. chairman. All advertising is aspirational and seeks to widen the market base for a product by netting in new customers. 'And it will continue to work as long as you tell me that provided I wink conspiratorially. 'Children have enormous pester power' she agrees. Madras High Court and anti-tobacco campaigner.N. The anti-smoking lobby dismisses such conclusions. says the ad industry.

the bulk of the respondents thought that the product advertised was a brand of men's shoes.Rama used an advertisement for a brand of women's shoes that featured a leather boot placed on a mini skirted woman's backside as a case study. 1954. The other 178 respondents panned it calling it irrelevant at the best to denigrating at the worst. polled the ad among 186 girls in the 18 to 20 age group across disciplines in Chennai's upper crust Stella Maris college. By conventional measures of advertisement effectiveness.Which is why activists like Desikan. 1955. And most damagingly. such rebuttal of advertising hyperbole by marketing logic may be the best way to make ads more credible and more ethical. Detergent manufacturers for starters.' More than legislation. 1940. He plans to file a series of suits against manufactures who make hyperbolic claims. you can take recourse to the following legislation under criminal law : Drugs and Magic Remedies (objectionable advertisements) Act. no great fan of the ad industry. Prevention of Food Adulteration Act. it is to set a trend in genre specific testing. 1950. presumably part of the ad's target audience. 'We'll have a lineup of women washing identically soiled clothes in different detergents and compare the results with the claims' he says. it is a watchdog body representing advertisers. There is a good chance that the ad will be withdrawn. The Aha! may yet turn out to be Uh huh ? 'The idea is not to penalise any specific manufacturer' says Desikan. While the 10 year old advertising standards council of India (ASCI) has no statutory powers. Ends. the ad was striking. believes that ethics are better served by asking the industry to regulate itself. a trained researcher.vijaymenon. novel and was guaranteed to clear clutter. Drugs and Cosmetics Act. 1954. but the consumer will not get any individual compensation. Prize Chits & Money Circulation Schemes (banning) Act. Dr K. you can complain about it to ASCI Secretariat in Mumbai. 'Rather.G. At the Chennai ASCI-FEDCOT workshop. Indecent Representation of www. Three fine art students said they liked the layout. Five respondents liked the ad. advertising agencies. 1950. Emblems and Names (prevention of improper use) Act. But was it effective ? Rama.com 4 . If you strongly feel cheated and feel that the ASCI action is insufficient. 1979. Prize Competition Act. Drugs Control Act. and. the media and allied professions. What to do if an ad offends you If you feel that an ad makes fraudulent claims or is indecent.

redress in form of a reasonable compensation can be quick. 'The practical problem often is to convince the three member bench that the ad violates norms' says Desikan. 'And our experience is that most of these get a rapid response from the manufacturer.' Failing that.' FEDCOT plans to correct that imbalance by filing a series of suits against advertisements making tall claims. For quick redress. 'We receive product specific complaints by the hundreds' says Desikan of FEDCOT. www.Women (prohibition) Act. 'Very few precedents exist for trying advertising centered cases. consumers can approach the consumer courts (there's one in every district) under the Consumer Protection Act of 1986. 1986. The results from these suits will form the data bank for judging future cases.vijaymenon. With no court fees and a mandate to dispose a case in 90 days and implement the decision in 30 days. the prosecution is a long drawn out affair and the law is so biased towards the accused that the consumer ultimately feels doubly cheated. consumer lawyers are of the opinion prosecution under these Acts are largely ineffective because each prosecution has to be initiated by an 'appropriate authority'. However.com 5 . consumer activists feel that the first complaint should go to the manufacturers directly.

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