Catalyst

Have you been seriously misled?

Prasad Sangameshwaran | Updated on March 10, 2018 Published on January 08, 2015

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Marketers began New Year with ASCI rapping them on the knuckles. It could be a worthy resolution for them to stop making misleading ads.

The New Year began on a sombre note for some of the country’s more respected brands. Four days ago, news agencies such as the Press Trust of India reported that the watchdog of the Indian advertising industry, the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), had upheld 113 complaints regarding misleading advertising campaigns released by companies such as Hindustan Unilever, Godrej, Bajaj Allianz, Nissan and others.

The brands that got a rap on the knuckles included venerable names such as Coca-Cola which was pulled up for releasing a radio advertisement where the mandatory line “Coca-Cola states that it contains no fruit juice …” was played too fast and was not comprehensible to listeners. Lifebuoy, a brand that has been acclaimed for innovative advertising in recent times, got the stick for the hyperbole that it offers 10 times more germ protection and skin care, a claim that the brand could not substantiate.

The number’s up

What are the downsides of misleading advertising? Harminder Sahni, Managing Director, Wazir Advisors, says, “When the consumers realise that something is not right with the messaging, they lose trust in the brand. The fallout for the brand is that if consumers are making choices based on its communication, once the trust is lost, the business can be adversely impacted.” Before we get into the details of that, let’s look at why an increasing number of ads are coming under the scanner.

In the period April-March 2013-14, the industry body received 785 complaints from consumers and companies regarding objectionable ads. In the year under review, it has already received 735 complaints in the nine-month period of April-December 2014. Even on a month-to-month comparison to the previous year, the number of complaints has been consistently on the rise.

Shweta Purandare, Secretary General, ASCI, is quick to point out, “It is not that marketers are going berserk. ASCI has consistently expanded its presence.” For example, Purandare points out that the number of complaints increased after ASCI set up an online complaint registration, got more support from the Government (see companion piece) and revamped its presence on social media.

In social media, for instance, ASCI has listening posts on Facebook and Twitter from where it directs aggrieved customers to its website and file a formal complaint. In a tie-up with TAM Media, ASCI has set up a National Ad Monitoring System that voluntarily tracks 45,000 print advertisements and 1,500 TV ads every months and takes suo moto cognisance of advertisements that do not comply with ASCI guidelines. To top that, the Centre’s Department of Consumer Affairs has told ASCI to flag off advertisements that are in clear violation of law. ASCI has initiated this since last month.

Social media impact

“There is a thin line between harmless untruths and harmful untruths,” says Madhukar Sabnavis, Vice-Chairman and Country Head, Discovery and Planning, Ogilvy & Mather India. “Consumers are discerning enough to make the difference between hyperbole and tangible benefits. However, if a brand makes a tall claim and is not able to deliver that to consumers in a tangible form, then the brand can get hurt as consumers feel cheated,” he adds. Anisha Motwani, Director & CMO, Max Life Insurance, agrees: “Consumers today are astute and see through false claims easily. Misleading advertising may bring in short-term benefits but in the long term it will result in loss of credibility.”

Sabnavis says that in his three decades of being in the advertising business, he is yet to come across any research done on the negative effects of a misleading ad and the adverse effect it has on brands. MG Parameswaran, advisor, FCB Ulka, seconds that. Then, as Sabnavis points out, as of date, there is little indication to the public at large that an ad got pulled out because of the ASCI’s verdict. “The consumer does not know whether the ad got pulled out because it was misleading or because the campaign got over,” he says.

However, all this could change with the increasing influence of social media. “This may change in the future because of social media activism by consumers. Misleading ads provide fodder to social media users to blog and tweet,” says Parameswaran.

Sharat Dhall, president, Yatra.com, agrees: “With the tremendous reach of social media offering an easy avenue for disgruntled consumers to share their bad experiences far and wide, brands cannot afford to be short-term in their thinking and attempts to mislead consumers are bound to fail in double-quick time, as bad word-of-mouth spreads very quickly via these networking platforms.” Motwani adds that companies should be extra cautious in keeping up with what they promote. “Misleading information is sure to result in negative publicity and loss of credibility and trust in the brand.”

“Just a page in my history… Just another one of those mysteries… One more lover that used to be… If you think you’re in my head… You been seriously misled,” sings Celine Dion in the song Misled. Probably that’s what consumers think about the advertising they see.

With inputs from Sravanthi Challapalli and Jessu John

Published on January 08, 2015
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