Paritosh Joshi: Who will cast the first stone?

28 Jun,2012

By Paritosh Joshi

 

You’ve got to give it to Aamir Khan. Any theme he raises through his cinema, and now his television show, instantly becomes the issue du jour. Dyslexia (Taare Zameen Par), rigid education practices (Three Idiots), anguish at the political establishment (Rang de basanti), morality of terrorism (Fanaa) and now in rapid fire succession the weekly episodes of Satyameva Jayate (everything from female foeticide to medical malpractice). If the worlds of the social media are anything to go by, people in the Media & Communications industry are particularly engaged in Aamir’s weekly broadsides. Minutes after the week’s episode goes on air at 11am on Sunday, Twitter is deluged with views and opinions agreeing, and less often disagreeing, with Mr. Khan.

 

You would imagine, looking at the stridency of tone that characterizes a lot of the chatter, that we belong to an industry that has solid claim on the high moral ground. Does it?

 

I became involved with the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) about 6 years back. As a communication professional, I was conscious of the close and incessant scrutiny that our industry attracted and of the permanent Damocles’ Sword of statutory regulation that hung over it. The ASCI charter’s commitment to self-regulate resonated strongly with me and joining the Consumer Complaints Council, which gives force to the Self Regulatory Code of the ASCI, was a natural next step.

 

If Awards Functions like the Abbys and Cannes are the Halls of Fame of the industry, CCC must qualify as its identification parade for the Rogues’ Gallery. Education institutions that claim their superiority, not based upon quality of education facilities they offer, but the acreage of their campus. Cooking oils that assure you of defence against cancer. Fairness potions promising enhanced employability. Malted beverages that deliver anything from height gain to better grades in the exams. A whole spectrum of beers and spirits veiled very thinly under guises of ‘Music CDs’, ‘Unique Events’, ‘Golf Equipment’ or ‘Soda’. Apparatuses that promise the benefits of a cardio workout by merely placing your feet in a harness and allowing them to shake about for a few minutes. Perfumes and deodorants that will instantly cause the user to become a sexual dynamo around whom people of the other gender experience spontaneous orgasms. Plastic beads and metal baubles that will ‘guard against the evil eye’, pacify irate planetary deities and result in a shower of wealth. Or in a particularly horrifying instance, a hospital that advertised radical hysterectomies as a permanent solution against pre-menstrual syndrome. We’ve seen them all.

 

While some offenders are no-name businesses, the largest majority are big and prominent businesses that we all hold in high esteem. Indeed, we must look well beyond the brand owners to understand the circle of culpable accessories that enable the offending communication to reach the consumer. The creative work originates in an advertising agency. A marketing team approves it for release. A media agency sets up a media schedule. Multiple media outlets finally convey it to the consumer. In many cases, all the organisations that are involved through this value chain are members of the Advertising Standards Council by virtue of which they are presumably committed to the ASCI Code. While the complaint is made and upheld against the brand owner, the actual burden of guilt correctly lies with all the accessories that participated in the process.

 

Interestingly, whenever the issue of legally dodgy, false, misleading or vulgar advertising crop in professional discourse, the ASCI is indicted forthwith, for its abject failure in bringing the perpetrators to book. Of recent days, the Ministry of Consumer Affairs has joined the chorus, promising a ‘National Consumer Protection Agency’ aka the other NCPA, to become the consumer’s paladin against advertising mischief. Apparently the phrase ‘Self-regulation’ is indecipherable to the average communication industry professional.

 

Self-regulation begins by a body representing all stakeholders in a particular context agreeing to a code of ethical practice. This code is then widely shared with all stakeholders so that they may understand and assimilate its letter and spirit. Once this has been done, self-regulation transfers the burden of compliance upon the practitioner. The overseeing authority is not a policeman. It is a conscience keeper.

 

 

This is an exhortation. A humble request. How clean is our own escutcheon before we pronounce moral judgment on all and sundry? Or as Aamir might say, “Apne ghirebaan mein jhaank kar dekha hai kabhi?”

Paritosh Joshi was until recently CEO, Star CJ. He has been a marketer, a mediaperson and been a key officebearer on industry bodies. He can reached via his Twitter handle @paritoshZero

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