Misleading Ads, Celebrities, Accountability, and Self-Regulation
Most of us have been victims of deceptive advertising. This in itself is not quite surprising, considering the sheer volume of commercial messages that daily try to reach us one way or the other, via images that are intended to persuade/cajole/tempt. What we see and hear is the information most likely to persuade us – the fine print remains, well, the fine print. Companies may bury anything in the fine print – contradictory information, half information, additional cost, and so on. And when celebrities enter the picture, what brands achieve is not just immediate attention but also a more readily persuaded audience. As the thin line between fact and fiction blurs, the question is one of ‘how much responsibility where’.
Dr Sheetal Kapoor
Today, consumers come across more than 1,500 ads daily and celebrities lend huge credibility to brands and help in breaking clutter and drawing undivided attention of the target audience. Celebrities enjoy their share of mass adulation and appear more persuasive than ordinary people when they speak highly of certain commodities. Advertising involving celebrities is undoubtedly more popular than those without them. Logically then, if a celebrity speaks for a fake commodity, he or she should bear liability for the damages it may cause to consumers. Or, shouldn’t they?
Some critics feel celebrities are also ordinary human beings and so its impossible for them to be aware of all aspects of new products. They do not have the means to examine the quality of certain products. Therefore, celebrities should not be held accountable for the products they speak for. If consumers buy the product only because a celebrity has endorsed it, they are not being wise. Ensuring product quality is the responsibility of producers and sales agents and also quality watchdogs, but has nothing to do with advertising spokespersons.
This debate picked up when actor Amitabh Bachchan created a furor with his lecture at Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad, where he said that he stopped endorsing Pepsi after a little girl asked him why he promoted something that her teacher termed as ‘poison’. Until then, he had been associated with the brand for eight years. Will this mean that celebrities will now check contents of the product before endorsing it?
Whether or not they want to, soon they may have to. In February this year, the Central Consumer Protection Council (CCPC), under the chairmanship of minister of consumer affairs, food & public distribution KV Thomas, decided to set up a sub-committee to suggest strategies to deal with erring advertisers. Among the concerns raised was peddling of products by celebrities.
Earlier on, in November 2012, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) had issued notices to 38 top-selling brands asking them to withdraw their ‘misleading’ advertisements. The brands included Complan, which claimed that one could grow two times by using the product, and Kellogg’s, which claimed that ‘research shows that people who eat low-fat breakfast like Kelloggs Special K tend to be slimmer than those who dont.
An advertisement becomes deceptive when it misleads people, alters the reality and affects buying behaviour. The deception may include a misrepresentation, an omission, or a practice that is likely to mislead.
The immediate push for regulation has come from the Madhya Pradesh High Court. The court asked the consumer affairs ministry to set up an ad-monitoring panel as recommended by the Vibha Bhargava Commission. The commission had submitted its report in 2005 and it underlined the urgent need to regulate false claims by advertisers of different products.
Apparently, misleading advertising is most rampant in the education sector and the healthcare and personal care space, accounting for more than half the total number of advertisements found to have flouted the compliance norms and code of conduct of the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI). In July 2013, ASCI’s Consumer Complaints Council (CCC) upheld complaints against 177 ads, of a total of 201 complained against. Most of the misleading ads were from the education sector and the promise of 100 per cent job placements was one of the recurring unsubstantiated claims, ASCI declared. This was followed by health and personal care, where most of the complaints upheld were against ads found to be misleading, or making false or unsubstantiated claims.
Some examples: The CCC concluded that the claims mentioned in L’Oreal Indias advertisements for its products Garnier Pure Active Neem Face Wash and Garnier Naturals Hair Colors were not substantiated by proper research. Garnier Pure Active Neem Face Wash had claimed that it was ‘enriched with real Neem’ and was the first ever face wash that removes pimples and marks. Garnier Naturals Hair Colors claimed ‘Naya Garnier colour natural ab aur bhi behtar, Trust only the No. 1, with the disclaimer saying ‘based on urban retail data’.
Hindustan Unilever was pulled up for the unsubstantiated claims for its ads for Brooke Bond Red Label, which claimed it is a ‘Healthy tea that improves blood circulation’, and for Pond’s Age Miracle which claimed ‘Look up to 10 years younger’, with the disclaimer in small print saying ‘with regular use’.
Complaint against Audi India was upheld for its advertisement claiming ‘Audi Q3 at a down payment of Rs 600,000 and 84 EMIs of Rs 38,000 only for on-road price (with registration and insurance)’. The fine print below indicated that ‘This is a bullet scheme’, ‘Offer valid only on June 22 and June 23, 2013’.
The advertising watchdog also upheld complaints against Tata Teleservices, which claimed ‘Unlimited 3G data for Rs 250’. The ad was misleading as the disclaimer mentioned that ‘3G data would be up to 1 GB only’.
Ethics in Advertising
In advertising ethical issues are broadly divided into two categories, ie, ethical dilemma and ethical lapse. The first is ethical dilemma that arises when the pros and cons regarding a particular issue are even, where ethics are concerned – for example, the use of advertorials to promote a company’s products or services. The advertorial attracts readers’ attention and the ad copy has a bigger impact on the minds of the reader than an ordinary advertisement. The appearance or layout of an advertorial is similar to that of magazine or newspaper editorials and readers are beguiled into thinking that they are reading an article.
An ethical lapse occurs when there is violation or deviation from standards knowingly – for example, conveying an inaccurate message while being well aware that it is wrong. For example, Vim Ultra dishwash powder claimed that it contained pure lemon juice, but the laboratory test proved that the claim was false. There are three parameters that help in deciding whether an advertisement is ethical or not:
a) Advocacy: It refers to what an advertisement is trying to say and whether this is objective or neutral.
b) Accuracy: It refers to whether the claim made by the company is true and verifiable.
c) Acquisitiveness: It refers to whether the advertisement is promoting materialism.
ASCI is a voluntary self-regulatory organization, registered as a not-for-profit company under Section 25 of the Indian Companies Act. The sponsors of the ASCI, who are its principal members, are firms of considerable repute within industry in India, and comprise advertisers, media, advertising agencies and other professional/ancillary services connected with advertising practice. Thus, while ASCI is not a government body, it is represented in all committees working on advertising content in every ministry of the Government of India.
What We Can Do
- Read ads carefully to find out what is really being offered. Read everything.
- When shopping, take ads with you in case you have questions about the advertised price, brand, or quality. Display items often show attachments or accessories that are not included in the sale price. Ask exactly what is included before you buy.
- If you see an ad stating that merchandise is 50 per cent off, don’t assume that it’s necessarily a bargain. Stores may raise their prices merely to make sale prices seem more appealing.
- Be cautious about ‘free’ offers. An ad must inform you if something else must be purchased in order to get the ‘free’ item, as well as how much it will cost you. Some companies raise their regular prices to cover the cost of free offers. The ad should clearly disclose the terms of ‘free’ offers.
- The ultimate responsibility to resist false/misleading advertising is yours. Try to be unemotional about statements like ‘fantastic savings’, ‘lowest prices in town’, etc.
- If you come across a misleading ad, submit an online complaint at www.ASCIONLINE.org.