Sanjeev Kotnala: Celebrity endorsement guidelines and why self-regulation is not ASCI’s job

19 Apr,2017

By Sanjeev Kotnala


Self-regulation must begin with ‘I’ before it can migrate to ‘We’ and ‘US’. So, when Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) President Srinivasan K Swamy, suggests that ‘be it an advertiser briefing an agency or an agency briefing their team, it’s time we add the ASCI code signoff to every advertising brief’, for a moment it sounds so nice. If only such things could help. We all know what happens to such lovely things, they become a blind spot. Nothing can change, until each one of us ant to adapt it as our own motto and make it an involuntary reflex action. However, for the few that will read them, I will endorse adding it as a signoff.


Adherence to ASCI code is is the responsibility of every true-blooded advertising, marketing or communication professional. If only each one of us could take the onus of no deviation on our beat, the situations would be far better. ASCI is all about advertising with a conscience; Honesty, Decency, Responsibility and Fairness. Trust, no-one has any argument against the thought. They don’t follow it, is a different case altogether.

If we really want to see some tectonic change in the attitude, ASCI must get some teeth. We need some examples of real action of exemplary damage or penalties. In the absence of it, ASCI will remain a guideline that people will willingly and understandingly break with full knowledge. Let’s, for example, take the celebrity code of conduct.It is an issue that has kept raising its head at frequent intervals.

The chase is partially over in the case of celebrity endorsement of misleading ads. Finally, new set of ASCI guidelines on celebrity endorsement are out. They ask celebrities to do the necessary due diligence of the claims made in the ads/ products they endorse. They have been created to help and encourage celebrities and advertisers to refrain from endorsing misleading advertisements.

The guidelines have a very pious objective. They are meant to protect the interest of consumers. It is understood that celebrities have the power to sway consumer decision and choices, thus impacting usage and consumption with a large set of audience. It is the moral responsibility of celebrities, clients and agencies to ensure that this power is not misused. It is different than in the era of information parity and easy access, the credibility of celebrity endorsers is being questioned by liberated audiences.

The guidelines asks agencies, advertisers and the celebrity to ensure the product/ brand they endorse to remain true to the claims being made. However, we are a bit too far from the orgasmic explosion of nirvana. There is no ‘MUST’ or a clear ‘THREAT’ of action. I am not sure, if the clients, agencies or the celebrities are really afraid of violating the ASCI code.

“Celebrity should do due diligence to ensure that all descriptions, claims and comparisons made in the advertisements they appear in or endorse are capable of being objectively ascertained, are capable of substantiation and should not mislead or appear deceptive…. Testimonials, endorsements or representations of opinions or preference of celebrities must reflect the genuine, reasonably current opinion of the individual making such representations, and must be based upon adequate information about or experience with the product or service being advertised”

I appreciate the effort and the process in creation of this guideline. I welcome the ASCI guideline asking celebrities not to endorse product requiring a health warning (as per law or are prohibited by various laws like the Drugs & Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) Act 1954 or The Drugs & Cosmetic Act 1940

My fight is that it still remains at a milder really non-threatening ‘SHOULD NOT’. It only creates morally and ethically defendable escape routes for the stakeholders.

I agree ASCI or anyone else can do nothing about it until the law bans these products, its advertising or the advertising with celebrity. Personally, I believe, no one should be stopped from advertising any product that is legally made, distributed and sold. If consumers are not stopped from consuming, why stop celebrities from endorsing. If they are really harmful, stop the sales of it.

I am delighted for the guidelines to have further expanded the scope and definition of celebrity. In addition to people from the field of Entertainment and Sports expands to include well-known personalities like Doctors, Authors, Activists, Educationists, etc. who get compensated for appearing in advertising.

This last phrase of ‘being compensated’ is another escape clause. It is irrelevant to the power of persuasion and or impact. It unnecessarily sparks the debate, if it is all right or is that not really endorsement if the person is not compensated. Hopefully, it will be taken care of in the next revision.

The best part of the ASCI guidelines is in trying to fix the responsibilities. It says, “Celebrities are expected to have adequate knowledge of these codes, and it is the duty of the Advertiser and the Agency to make sure that the Celebrity they wish to engage with is made aware of them. Testimonials, endorsements or representations of opinions or preference of Celebrities must reflect a genuine, reasonably current opinion of the individual(s) making such representations, and must be based on adequate information about or experience with the product or service being advertised.’ Here the usages and expectations are squarely defined, and in a way one knows where the buck should stop. At least one little loophole of celebrity famed selective ignorance has been plugged.

I like ASCI’s clarity on the actionable agenda. It sets up the process. According to the ASCI advice, the celebrity is absolved of his act or omission or commission if the Celebrity follows the recommended procedure and seeks Advertising Advice from ASCI on potential suitability of the advertisement, and it not breaching the ASCI code.

And once it does so, it has to then absolve itself of the liability. So, ASCI’s Advertising Advice will not be construed as pre-clearance of the Advertisement.

Now before we keep drilling holes and forget that perfection is always work-in-progress, we should be happy that ASCI is active and working on different fronts to create the right environment for truthful advertising. Everything needs time. ASCI is more nimble and agile now. We all can see the steps being taken, and we must first applaud it.

ASCI as per agreement with AdEx India, a division of TAM, checks on a continuous basis all newly released TV and Newspaper print advertisement for violation of ASCI’s advertisement code related to unsubstantiated, misleading or false claim. Though we do not have an idea that since its start how many cases have been reported with its National Advertising Mionitoring Service ( NAMS)

ASCI is ready to help educating clients and agencies on the ASCI codes and guidelines. It has an ASCI e-Learning Course  devoted to it. I bet most of my readers would never have clicked on the link and will not click even today. Should marketers and agencies not include ASCI code and e-course in their induction processes? I am sure it will help bridging an unstated gap.

By the way, making a 60-second commercial encouraging practitioner like you to undergo ASCI e-learning to understand the ASCI code could make you win prizes. Last date April 30, 2017.

Before I close, I must restate what I started with. We need citizen vigilance to control act of terrorism. And we need industry vigilance to stop misleading celebrity endorsements and ads. Misleading advertisement is a terrorism of a different style.

I request each one of you to take the control of your beat. Your area of operation. Take the internal challenge and be the ASCI warrior in your organisation. Question every brief and the advertisement that you create or react to as a consumer. If it violates ASCI guidelines, don’t stop, go ahead and file the complaint here..

Stop having a ‘Chalta Hai’ (It’s Ok, it happens, it’s normal) and ‘Dekh Lengey’ ( we will see later; we will manage) attitude. The moment you do, self-regulation will become truly powerful. We all are responsible to raise our collective voices on advertisements violating codes. It is the job of we all. It is not the job of ASCI alone.

PS. Once in a while do visit the ASCI website. You will get updated information on many issues in this subject area. In my last visit, I ended up knowing a wee bit more about Comliance with the Emblems and Names ( prevention of improper use ) act 1950, MOU between ASCI and Ministry of AYUSH for monitoring of AYSUH advertisements, action on the advertisements violating the Indian Medicine regulation act as well as the University Grant Commission notice on Distance Education Programmes.

Sanjeev Kotnala ( B.Tech, PGDBM- IIM Ahmedabad) with 29 years of corporate experience is the founder of Intradia World; a Brand, Marketing & Management Advisory. Additionally, he focusses on   Ideation, Innovation, design thinking and BRAND-I, be the brand. Email tweet @s_kotnala web:


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