Reining in Misleading Advertisements

It has become rather usual for advertising regulatory authorities to receive complaints against advertisements misleading consumers. This has forced the government to draft stricter guidelines to safeguard consumers' interest against false advertisements, MOHD MUSTAQUIM reports
Reining in Misleading Advertisements

Advertising is described as the ‘science of arresting human intelligence long enough to get money from it’ by Canadian author and economist Stephen Leacock. His words have turned out to be true as advertisers around the world go to any extent to influence the buying behaviour of consumers.

The most important objective behind advertising is to generate profits through increasing sales of products and services by running advertising campaigns.

To attract maximum number of consumers many marketers often breach the basic codes of advertising by stating exaggerated claims of benefits of their products, and thus their advertisements misleading the consumers. And consumers buy a product after seeing the claims in the advertisement. Poor literacy rate in rural India and low awareness about products and services easily affect the buying habits of rural consumers and, sometimes, they fall prey to such advertisement.

In 2012, food company Heinz faced the heat for its popular product Complan. The company was prosecuted for its claim that the product ‘helps kids grow twice if they get another drink’. The claim of providing ‘more stamina and making kids smarter’ by GSK products, Boost and Horlicks, were also questioned by Food Safety Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) in the past. FSSAI regulates food advertising campaigns under the Food Safety & Standards Act, 2006.       

According to experts, companies claim that they do number of studies for their products, however, they are not conducted in a scientific manner, often lacking technical quality.  

"Misleading and unfair practices were a global phenomenon," says Ruth Anna Buettner, Director – Consumer Policy & Protection, GIZ. "The purpose of regulation should be proper functioning of markets and protection of individual consumer, mainly his contractual rights."  There are two ways of enforcement, one through public authority and the other through the courts worldwide.

Some food products use international food codes in place of ingredients on the label. A common consumer, even an urban educated person, is not aware about the international codes. Sometime, it is found that the emulsifiers used in a food product are made from animal fats, and in contrast companies claim the food is completely vegetarian by using vegetarian symbol on the wrapper. In a country like India, where a big section of the people is vegetarian, such advertisement reflect disregard for consumers’ tradition.

Elaborating the role of Advertising Standard Council of India (ASCI) and its future plan, Partha Rakshit, Chairman, ASCI said, "Obtaining legal authority for enforcing compliance of ASCI decisions on print advertising complaints as it has for TV (Cable TV Act) is one of the top most priorities and urged the government to facilitate the process. ASCI plans to cover social media more extensively. It is also launching an online training programme on ASCI regulations targeted at young copywriters, agency executives and product managers in manufacturing/service companies to make them aware."

According to the regulatory body, out of 201 complaints received in July 2013, 94 misleading advertisements were from education sector, followed by 52 from health and personal care products. The claims mentioned in L’Oreal India’s advertisements for its products, Garnier’s Pure Active Neem Face Wash and Naturals Hair Colors were not substantiated and the complaints were upheld by ASCI.

Similarly, the leading FMCG company Hindustan Unilever was questioned by ASCI for its advertising campaigns for Brook Bond Red Label which claimed ‘Healthy tea that improves blood circulation’, and Ponds Age Miracle for its claim of ‘Look up to 10 years younger’ with a small print disclaimer quoting ‘with regular use’. And for claiming ‘100 percent protection from mosquitoes’ got Dabur India drew flak from ASCI for its mosquito repellent Odomos.

As mentioned earlier, there were 94 cases of misleading advertisements from education sector, some educational institutes also faced prosecution for misleading advertisements by claiming 100 percent placement. Some of them were IMS Learning Resources Pvt Ltd, Institute of Hotel Management (IHM) Meerut, Indian Institute of Hardware Technology, EduEdge Coaching Classes and KV Institute of Management & Information Studies.

The regulator in November 2012 prosecuted 11 companies including FMCG major Emami for its Himani Sona Chandi Chyawanprash advertisement with the misleading line, ‘gold removes toxins to boost immunity power’ and electrical goods maker Havells for ’24 Hours hot water in just half unit of electricity’.

At a recently held event at FICCI, Manoj Kumar Parida, joint secretary at Ministry of Consumer Affairs (MoCA), Government of India, acknowledged self-regulation when it comes to dealing with misleading advertisements.  He also stated that it was important to have powerful execution backed by a Government Authority. He expressed appreciation for ASCI’s efforts in self-regulation in advertising and ensuring the interests of consumers.

Parida suggested that the newly-formed Inter-Ministerial Monitoring Committee, constituted with the sole aim of monitoring misleading advertisements, could serve as the missing executive arm to ASCI. The Committee will monitor misleading advertisements and unfair trade practices and suggest steps accordingly, he added.

Kurush Grant, Chairman, FICCI FMCG Committee & Executive Director, ITC Ltd, said that FICCI had planned an excellent interaction with all the key stakeholders on every aspect of misleading advertisements. Stakeholders such as  NGOs, consumer forums, industry, self-regulatory body and the government have unanimously agreed to work towards finding a similar solution of empowering self-regulation. FICCI will work closely with ASCI and the Ministry of Consumer Affairs to tackle the menace caused by misleading advertisements.

Expressing her views on the regulatory framework for misleading advertisements, Aazmeen B Kasad, advocate Mumbai High Court, said, "To keep a vigil on the increasing incidents of misleading advertisements, the Central Consumer Protection Council (CCPC), apex body for consumer protection, has recently decided to draft guidelines to safeguard consumers’ interest from false advertisements in the country and set up a sub-committee to suggest strategies to deal with celebrity endorsements."

Advertisements have very crucial impact on consumers. Therefore, they should have crisp and genuine information to ensure there is no chance of misleading consumers. In the large media spectrum from print, TV to web, a single authority cannot keep vigilance on them. It would be a better option if companies adopt self-regulation and provide genuine information to consumers. And it becomes very crucial in rural areas where the lack of product awareness is rampant due to poor literacy.  

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