ASCI: a watch-dog or a pet-dog?

The Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) was established in 1985 with the support of all the sectors connected with advertising – advertisers, ad agencies, media, PR agencies, market research, and consulting companies, to promote responsible advertising, thus enhancing public’s trust in advertising.

The ASCI has a Code of Self Regulation in Advertising which is equivalent to a constitution. In fact, the code covers four broad principles:

1. ASCI needs to ensure the truthfulness and honesty of representations and claims made by advertisements and thus safeguard the consumers against misleading advertisements.
Example: A toothpaste brand advertising that 75% of the dentists recommend their toothpaste.
2. ASCI ensures that advertisements are not offensive to generally accepted standards of public decency.
3. ASCI needs to safeguard against the indiscriminate use of advertising for the promotion of products which are regarded as hazardous to society.
4. ASCI needs to make sure that advertisements observe fairness in competition so that the consumer’s need to be informed about the choices in the market-place and the canons of generally accepted consumer-behaviour are both well-served.

Though initially ASCI lacked the legal recognition, the Government of India through a notification in August 2006 made sure that atleast as far as TV commercials are concerned, they abide by the ASCI code. Thus, any ad that violates the ASCI code shouldn’t run on the television. ASCI makes sure that the ad is modified or withdrawn if a complaint is received.

ASCI has just won the Best Practice Bronze Award at the European Advertising Standards Alliance (EASA) Awards. In India, the number of complaints received per month is 200 and is very low compared to countries like New Zealand where around 500 complaints are filed every month.
It is a nightmare for every marketer for their commercial to be banned by the ASCI and it just makes the job tough for both the marketer and the advertiser. HUL, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, General Mills, Kellogg, Nestle, Parle, Mars International etc. all have faced the fury of this industry watch-dog.

Several advertisements have been barred from being aired on TV in the past as the Consumer Complaints Council (CCC) of ASCI upheld complaints against these advertisements stating that it doesn’t follow the ASCI code of the four rules. Obviously, accusations against ASCI for acting shrewd and in a biased manner are already prevalent. Some of the banned ads are:

1. Parle Agro whose Parle LMN juice television commercial (TVC) showed native Africans searching for water, while the ad says “If you don’t have water, drink LMN Juice.”ASCI found this ad to be blatantly racist and ridiculous and didn’t give the permission to air this ad.
2. Kellogg’s Chocos commercial was “poshan se bhara” (full of nutrition). On analysis, it was found to have 32.8 gm of sugar per 100 gm. ASCI reasoning was that as per European Regulation on Health Nutrition Claims, sugar content of more than 12.5 gm per 100 gm is considered to be high. Thus, the product cannot be termed as healthy and it is misleading the consumers.
3. Dove Treatment Shampoo, Nestle Maggi Ketchup, Dabur Pudin Hara Lemon Fizz, Good Knight Aerosol, etc. are pulled up in the past by the ASCI.

Some of the ads which could prove the point are:
1. The TVC of Colgate was found to be misleading by ASCI, which alleged that the company was giving wrong information to the viewers that 75% of the dentists prescribe Colgate Sensitive toothpaste and only 25% prescribe some other brand. Colgate was asked to modify this part of the commercial, but Colgate could substantiate its claims with data that 3 out of 4 dentists recommend Colgate Sensitive.
2. The TVC of Heinz’s Complan was pulled up for claiming that Complan ensures kids grow taller. Heinz could provide supporting data and continued with the TVC screening.

Concerns about ASCI:

ASCI is apparently a ‘voluntary’ self-regulatory organisation, registered as a not-for-profit company under section 25 of the Indian Companies Act. So, there were a lot of recent court cases on its power to regulate the advertisements.
Also, it is not clear how the ASCI’s board members ( from media agencies, advertising firms, etc.) are chosen, but the fact that board members have a completely independent right to select the members of the Consumer Complaints Council (CCC) rather than using a transparent election process which involves a larger pool from the industry is also unconstitutional in character. The question is – how can the council members belong to some interested parties? Is ASCI a pet-dog of some conglomerates?s
It is observed in general that the complaints were filed more by the competitive companies than the consumers. It would be interesting to see how the Govt. Of India, ASCI take charge of these accusations and deal with the things unbiased going forward.