Financial Daily from THE HINDU group of publications
Friday, May 23, 2003
Surrogate advertising Needed, a spirited attack
Pradeep S. Mehta
"HUM, tum or mera Bagpiper". This Bagpiper club soda advertisement, featuring cine celebrities, is similar to the earlier one for Bagpiper whisky.
The advertisement comes with the same music and punch line as the one for the popular liquor brand telecast before the ban on liquor advertisements.
This phenomenon, known as "surrogate advertising" (duplicating the brand image of one product extensively to promote another product of the same brand), has become commonplace.
Surrogate advertisements took off not long ago in the UK, where British housewives protested strongly against liquor advertisements "luring" away their husbands. The liquor industry found a way around the ban: Surrogate advertisements for cocktail mixers, fruit juices and soda water using the brand names of the popular liquors.
In India, the trend of surrogate advertisement gathered momentum with the Cable TV Network Regulation Act, which prohibits tobacco and liquor advertisements on TV channels. The liquor industry has intentionally blurred the line between products, advertising `old wine' in a `new bottle,' only this time with a soft-drink label.
A market survey in 2001 revealed that advertising has a direct influence on the consumption habits of 431 million people in India and an indirect impact on 275 million `aspirants' from the lower income group. Considering this and realising that nearly 50 per cent of the television owners have access to cable channels, there is no doubt that the hidden call for alcohol consumption behind the surrogate advertisements is not escaping the eyes of viewers in the world's fourth highest liquor-consuming country. The very purpose of banning liquor advertisements is defeated by surrogate advertising.
Sociological studies have shown that, in India, a significant share of income of a large section of the population is spent on liquor, potentially leading to financial distress and health hazards. According to the International Wine and Spirit Board, a liquor industry publication, there will be a jump in the number of people reaching the legal drinking age of 25 within the next few years. The implication is that the problem is going to grow.
The motivations of firms look even more suspect when they advertise products that cannot be bought. In 2002, for example, Jagatjit Industries, the maker of Aristrocrat Whisky, advertised a product called `Aristrocrat Apple Juice.' The company reportedly confirmed availability of the fruit juice in Delhi, Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan, yet, no reputed shop in Delhi had ever seen it, let alone sell it.
Understanding the gravity of the situation, the Indian Broadcasting Foundation (IBF) has started to take on the surrogate liquor advertisements. In a recent board meeting, the IBF decided that Jagatjit Industries and other liquor manufacturing units must get production of the advertisement approved both at the `storyboard stage' and after the production of the commercial.
It also ruled that that if liquor companies promote any juice, mineral water or soda, these should be shown in a proper manner and not as trimmings to liquor advertisement.
These are welcome steps, but the key point lies in enforcement. If, in a free society, producers have a legitimate right to let consumers know about their products through advertisements, consumers have the right to information in adverts that are clear and honest.
Surrogate advertisements are not only misleading, but also false and dishonest in many cases. With surrogate advertising so widespread, this is the moment to tackle the problem head-on.
There should be stringent regulatory measures to curb the practice, such as: i) making transparent laws banning surrogate advertisements for different products under a single brand names, by amending the Trade Marks Act, for instance;
ii) providing teeth to the Advertising Standards Council of India to enable it take action against false and misleading advertisements, and keep a close vigil over clever evasion of the law;
iii) asking the electronic and print media to adhere to the advertisement codes and not encourage surrogate advertisements;
iv) calling on the ASCI address complaints received from consumers against surrogate advertisements and take appropriate actions immediately;
v) creating a consumer awareness programme to help people understand the negative impact of surrogate advertisements;
vi) adopting strict laws to penalise those companies featuring surrogate advertisements without any real existence of the product; and
vii) requiring advertising agencies to have full knowledge of the products under the same brand for which they are promoting advertisements, and taking legal actions against those agencies which design surrogate advertisements.
If one believes that honesty is the best policy and truth ultimately gains, the best policy would be to stand up strongly to the dishonest practices of surrogate advertising.
(The author is Secretary-General of the Jaipur-based CUTS Centre for International Trade, Economics and Environment, an NGO working on trade and economic issues at national and international levels, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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