Soon Consumers will be Regulators…

24 Mar,2015


By Labonita Ghosh


A few years ago, global consumer goods giant Unilever found itself in a sticky situation. A new advertisement for its margarine Flora, had sparked a huge row. The ad showed a bullet going straight for a human heart made of china. The bullet, fashioned by the words “Uhh dad, I’m gay”, was followed by Flora’s tagline, “You need a strong heart today”. Amid largescale protests against the clearly homophobic nature of the ad, Unilever first distanced itself from the campaign, saying it had been produced by an agency in South Africa and had not been approved by the company. Then, as the protests refused to die down, the company pulled the campaign altogether. “The ad seemed to indicate that finding out your son was homosexual, was like taking a bullet to the heart. It was a very uncomfortable situation for us,” said Marc Mathieu, global SVP marketing for Unilever, who was in Mumbai last week, speaking at an event organised by the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), on responsible advertising.


ASCI has been pushing for self-regulation in the advertising world to ensure ethical and responsible handling of campaigns, and also for punitive measures against companies and agencies that put out misleading ads. Earlier in the week, the Department of Consumer Affairs announced it had set up a website called GAMA (Grievances Against Misleading Advertisements) and was partnering with ASCI to take action on the complaints filed online and penalise offenders. The prevalent idea, however, is that there may be no need for action if the industry decides for itself to toe the line.


One oft-repeated grouse by the industry is that too many guidelines curb creativity. “The assumption often is that rules are a barrier to creativity,” said Shantanu Khosla. Managing director, P&G India at the event. “But we should not think of regulation as a constraint. It comes from the same source as my fundamental consumer insight, ie society. The people we serve, write the rules, and no one else.” Indeed, it is from these rules, added Khosla, that companies can also build leverage and trust for their brands with consumers.


In fact, sometimes thinking out of the box can lead to some great advertising, felt John Hegarty, founder of BBH. He cited the example of how, since the socio-cultural conditions of various markets differ, there are some regulations that – literally — come with the territory. And trying to find (legitimate) ways around this, can often lead to innovative solutions. Like a hair care commercial that was prepared for the Malaysian market. “How do you advertise for women’s hair care product in a country where women wear headscarves and are not allowed to leave their head exposed?” Hegarty said. “The agency found a way around it.” The ad focuses on a comb instead, first with strands of hair on it, and later without, to show how the product could stop hair fall.


Unilever’s Mathieu felt that understanding people is what unites the marketing and advertising agencies. “Insights into certain human truths are the most important thing,” he said. “So companies need to ask themselves what is the human truth that I can use for my campaign that will resonate with people?” Making campaigns more people-centric and creating more purposeful brands, will automatically yield ads that are less offensive and more acceptable to consumers.


Experts, however, feel consumers themselves are the best regulators. “Self-regulation is our job, yours and mine, and not ASCI’s,” said Paritosh Joshi, head of media and communications consultancy unit Provocateur Advisory. “The more everyone believes they are a part of this, the more they will believe that enforcing truthfulness and honesty is a collective responsibility. Self-regulation is not about curtailing creativity, but about establishing a framework of rules that one might have for, say, golf or cricket or boxing. If you’re not allowed to punch below the belt, you’re not allowed to punch below the belt. There are good reasons for this, and we should all be aware of them.” When that awareness comes, there may not be a need for a watchdog at all.


Sanjeeb Chaudhuri, CMO and global head of brand at Standard Chartered agreed. “Increasingly, the response of the consumer, will be driven by the consumer,” he says. “This consumer’s choice will, in turn, drive the choices that advertisers and agencies will have to make. They will find that they can’t go against the grain [of the consumer].”


Santosh Desai, MD and CEO of Future Brands, saw things a tad differently. “I think the issue of self-regulation will only become more contentious till such time that business can see itself as an intrinsic part of society,” he said. “Considerations [about regulation] should not stem from things like the consumer becoming more empowered and taking to Twitter to complain. These will always be half-solutions. It will happen only when corporations begin to believe that they don’t have immunity from society.” Indeed, it should be impossible to separate the consumer from the business. “The business of business is people,” said Bobby Pawar, director and chief creative officer at Publicis Worldwide. “Just as products have consumer benefits, companies should too. They must also benefit society in some way. The thing to keep in mind is that if you are a person with a conscience, you should also try to develop one for your brand, and stay true to it at all times.” A tough ask, perhaps, but certainly doable.


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