Action time at ASCI

04 Mar,2015


Narendra Ambwani, chairman of advertising self-regulator Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), talks to ‘dna of brands’ about the extensive campaign to connect with consumers and educate them on how to file complaints, and seek redress, against ads which make tall claims. Everyone, from local agencies and state governments to the Centre, are now happy to partner with ASCI.


Although established way back in 1985, would you say that 2014 was a landmark year for the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), given all the activities that were undertaken in its capacity as a self-regulator for advertising?

We have seen growth in leaps and bounds at ASCI every year, but 2014 was definitely a notable year for the organisation.


The year started off with ASCI bagging a gold at The European Advertising Standards Alliance (EASA) Global Best Practice Awards for ‘significantly reducing’ average time taken to handle complaints. We were credited with reducing the lead time for processing complaints from an average of 45 days in 2011-12, to 28 days in 2012-13 and just 12 days in 2013-14. Recognising our efforts to curb misleading advertisements, ASCI was also made a key stakeholder in the Inter-Ministerial Monitoring Committee (IMMC) by the Department of Consumer Affairs. Further, during the year, ASCI’s role was strongly appreciated and acknowledged by the Medical Council of India (MCI) for taking action against misleading advertisements by doctors. We were approached by various ministries for a potential partnership to look into this issue. So all in all, last year was indeed a landmark year for ASCI.


From a government that was, some years ago, questioning the role of ASCI as self-regulator, to one that is collaborating with it, ASCI has a come a long. Your comments?

Even though ASCI was considered a self-regulating industry body, it has received considerable support from the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB). A notification dated August 2, 2006, issued under the Cable Television Network Rules, 1994, states that “no advertisement which violates the Code for Self-regulation in advertising, as adopted by the Advertising Standard Council of India, Mumbai, for public exhibition in India, from time to time, shall be carried in the cable service”. After that, ASCI received statutory recognition. The FDA authorities have also been sending us complaints against advertisements violating the Drugs and Magic Remedies Act. Besides this, ASCI is a key stakeholder in the Inter-Ministerial Committee of the MIB, as well as the Inter Ministerial Monitoring Committee of the Department of Consumer Affairs. Efforts at ensuring ethical advertising practices have earned ASCI its credibility, and the confidence of the government of India.


While policing unethical ads is taking place through ASCI’s Consumer Complaints Council (CCC), there is still a view that by the time any penal action is taken, the damage is already done. Is this correct?

ASCI has to provide due process for the advertiser, whose advertisement has been complained against, to respond to the allegations. Providing adequate time for the advertiser to respond, is mandated by law. However, ASCI has recently instituted three new initiatives to speed up the CCC decision process. One is to have the CCC meet four times a month instead of once, so that decision-making takes places within 12 days on an average (as opposed to a month or 45 days previously). And two, starting the Fast Track Intra-Industry complaint (FTCC) redress process, where decisions regarding complaints from one member advertiser against the advertisement of another, are taken within seven working days. Since March 15, 2013, ASCI has initiated the Suspension Pending Investigation (SPI) process. According to this, ASCI can, ex-parte, ask an advertiser to suspend an advertisement, pending final decision by the CCC if, prima facie, it is seen to cause harm or hurt to consumers and the society in general.


If one feels an ad is making unrealistic claims and complains to ASCI, in how much time can one expect a response?

In the past few years, ASCI has made significant changes in the complaints processing system. Thanks to electronic communication, weekly meetings of the Consumer Complaints Council and the Online Complaint Monitoring Services, the average lead time to take a decision on a complaint is 12 working days from the date a “complete” complaint was received. This includes full details of the print advertisement, the name and date of publication, and clippings or a copy of the print advertisement. In case of a TVC airing, we require the name of the channel, the date and time of the broadcast; a reasonable description of the clip, specific claims or visual depictions which are considered to be false, misleading or objectionable, and the reasons for the same.


Would you recommend a Censor Board-like pre-release certification for ads, just as it exists for films?

Throughout the country, there are a large number of advertisements being released every year. Under our National Advertisement Monitoring Service (NAMS) initiative, we scan at least 45,000 print ads and 1,500 TVCs every month. It is impossible to create a mechanism and run an efficient system to pre-approve every advertisement which is released in the country. No system would be able to cope with such a large number. So we as an organisation, from inception, have been promoting the concept of “self-regulation in advertising content”, and truly believe in this best practice which is being implemented all over the world.


There are several advertisers who release ads directly through specific media, like mailers or SMS blasts. How do you check these, especially if the publication is not an ASCI member?

Ever since the launch of our Online Complaint and Monitoring Service (OCMS), we have received complaints against misleading advertisements across all media. While complaints relating to mailers and SMSes comprise a small percentage, they are increasing year on year. Currently, we are monitoring print and TV advertisements via NAMS. However, we do have plans to also track digital media. The processing of complaints is uniform across advertisers, regardless of whether they are an ASCI member or not.


Your Clean Ad Campaign seemed to have been quite a hit. Tell us more about it. Are you going to make it an ongoing exercise?

We launched the ‘Swachh Ads Abhiyan’ to mark National Consumers’ Day on December 24, 2014, and made a splash about it on social media (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube). Since it resonated with the Swachh Bharat campaign, it created a great amount of media buzz. The aim of the campaign was to increase awareness about false claims [made by advertisers] and combat misleading advertisements to safeguard consumer interests.


We engaged with consumers through our virtual platforms, and this drove consumer attention towards the campaign, educating them about not to be misled through advertisements, and the importance of taking action by lodging an online complaint. We believe this initiative has empowered and encouraged consumers to make the right choices, when it comes to advertisement claims.


The campaign was conducted through videos that lent clarity to misleading claims and invited interaction from consumers culminating with a call for action to lodge a complaint online. This resulted in 150% more people engagement and the message reached more than 2.5 lakh consumers. It also resulted in tangible change that was sustained by the social media thrust. For instance, the number of online complaints increased by 166%.


What’s next at ASCI? What are the other activities you propose to take up?

Our priorities for the year have been chalked out as self-discipline by creators of advertising, easier access to ASCI services, collaboration with regulators and we are keen on being viewed as fair by all stakeholders. Our major focus, therefore, would be on activities enabling these goals. We are going to launch, shortly, an online training programme called the ASCI e-learning. We have plans to further increase awareness and accessibility regarding ASCI. As mentioned earlier, in terms of collaboration with the regulator, we are in talks with the Department of Consumer Affairs and the FSSAI.


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