If self-regulation fails…

15 Jun,2022



By Sanjeev Kotnala


Sanjeev KotnalaGood news. ASCI acted fast. It is debatable who acted first to ban/ withdraw the controversial Layer’r Shot ad. Was it the government or the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI)? I am glad someone did. However, the story has died fast. Everyone is okay after the ad is withdrawn and a vague apology tendered. One does not know the mandatory approvals, who approved, and why there is no further action?


Meanwhile, the government got into the act. The Central Consumer Protection Authority (CCPA) released new guidelines against misleading advertisements. It says surrogate advertising is now banned- was it allowed earlier? The celebrity must disclose association and do due diligence before endorsing – was that not the case?


Meanwhile, ASCI released new guidelines on Harmful Gender-Stereotype in advertising. It aims to encourage advertisers to create progressive gender depictions. It is okay if the ground realities are different and do not reflect this expected holier-than-thou depiction in advertisements.


This reminds me of Sunny Deol’s famous dialogue; Guideline pe Guideline pe guideline- nahi milte hai toh misleading advertisements se chutti.


Minister Calls ASCI act

I read the overdramatic comment of the Union Minister for Women and Child Development, Mrs Smriti Irani and I smiled. She said, “If women were valued enough, we wouldn’t need guidelines”. I believe she would know the reality.

However, she made a relevant observation on ASCI members and their engagement. Of the 800 ASCI members, just three members (officebearers) were at the guideline event. That’s how integral ASCI is to the industry. That is how concerned, involved, and serious the industry is towards self-regulation?


Intent does not Count

The guidelines on Harmful Gender-Stereotype in advertising call for not including gender stereotypes likely to cause harm or serious or widespread offence. For ASCI, it is a strong step towards a more responsible and progressive narrative. Well, I am not so sure. We know how guidelines are exploited, played with, and not adhered to by advertisers.

The truth is that most creative and client teams do not know the guidelines and don’t understand them. Brands simply don’t give a damn to ASCI, given that it only seeks a polite enquiry and request to withdraw the offending advertisement.


Things have changed a bit 

ASCI has streamlined the processes. There are quick processes to address the problem. But withdrawing the ad with no public apology shows ASCI has no bite. In most cases, the advertisement achieves its objective before ASCI request a withdrawal.  However, the ASCI service #GetItRight, get the creative pre-checked at the production stage, returns a 404 error!


Different strokes

Surprisingly, large brands and big advertisers regularly feature in the quarterly reports of offending work. ASCI guidelines have no say on advertorials, political and Government advertisements.


Will ASCI guidelines restrict creativity?

In today’s world of rapid information exchange, heightened point-of-views and hardened social voices help nudge the brands in the right direction. But storytellers must have creative licenses.

Is ASCI not asking too much for brands to reinforce unrealistic and undesirable gender ideals or expectations. For example, expecting a woman to return from work may not be shown as solely responsible for doing household duties while others around her are at leisure. Remember Airtel.


Should advertising worry about social reform?

When the guidelines become constraining, they will be questioned.

Should advertising stop reflecting the social and cultural realities?

Will it not make them irrelevant, ineffective, and tough to relate to?

Should advertising aim to nudge people towards the right desired way of life?

Or should the ground realities change before advertising reflects it?

Are we not giving advertising too much credit for possibly impacting human behaviour?

Are guidelines not trying to dictate what should be controlled by the market forces?



Advertising is becoming a tough maze with all the guidelines. There is too much of what not to do. Maybe creative teams see it as a decent challenge. But this forced wokeness is wrong.

The brands should be free to tell the story how they want and ensure that no misinformation or false promise is being made. And that it does not hurt religious, regional, language or gender groups or objectify any gender.  And if there are guidelines there should be a robust way to implement them by Sham, Daam, Dand or Bhed. (Logic, cost, Penalty and differentiation/doubt).


Let us understand, that ASCI cannot do much till the corporates, the marketing and the brand owners take the initiative. Self-regulation is all about knowing and doing things consciously as per the guidelines. Till the time ASCI does not have real teeth to penalise and persuade brands for breach of guidelines, they may just remain guidelines.


Not against self-regulation

I am not against self-regulation; it is crucial. As an industry we all owe to the society the right way of promotion. If the industry continues to fail at self-regulation. In that case, someone like government will have to regulate it, which will be a sad day for the industry.

I am all for effective self-regulation, where there is one expectation from every stakeholder, and the regulating authority has the right to take action. Where every team member on the client and the agency side understands and appreciated the need for the guidelines, maybe then they will follow it better. Maybe I am asking for too much.



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