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Win them over, at any cost

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Advertising thrives on exaggeration, no doubt. But of late, a slew of misleading and deceptive advertisements is constantly aired on television to influence consumers to pick up the products advertised. Especially targeted are impressionable kids;employing pester power, advertisers know, always pays.

The companies themselves may not be entirely wrong about what they claim, but it has been proved often that some of their advertisements are full of half-truths. And it's the race for market share and a focus on the topline in an increasingly competitive marketplace that drives companies to go over the top in their sales pitch.

Sam Balsara, chairman and managing director of the diversified communication group, Madison World, explains the phenomenon: "The job of the advertiser is to persuade, motivate and influence a consumer to prefer brand A over brand B. To do that he tries to find a unique position or a claim, which would make sense to the consumer. Only in rare cases does the agency stretch the brief. " But clearly, that brief is increasingly being stretched beyond reasonable limits.

This is how advertisements are created: Mostly, companies brief the advertising firm about the product and share research findings and commissioned studies, which have been vetted by their legal department. Then, it is up to the advertising agency to translate this brief into a creative - the medium could be print, television, radio or outdoor hoardings.

As consumer goods and food companies are being slammed for irresponsible advertising, the advertising world insists that advertisers are conscious of their 'societal' responsibility and try to win the confidence and trust of consumers at large. Senior ad professional Prasoon Joshi, who is the executive chairman of McCann Worldgroup India, and the brains behind the iconic Thanda Matlab Coca-Cola campaign, feels "no lies" are told to consumers.

"The client knows that the consumer is the audience, and no client would want to lose that trust. No client wants to hurt their sentiments because first and foremost comes their (consumers' ) trust, " he says. Joshi explains the "exaggeration" as "creative interpretation" or putting across facts in an interesting manner to attract eyeballs.

However, a certain section of the advertising and marketing community feels that there may be "few aberrations" where the companies may go overboard with "misleading or far-fetched" claims.

To rectify these aberrations, safeguards exist in the form of a voluntary code drawn up by the industry body, the ASCI, with which consumers, companies or even an individual can lodge complaints against advertisements that are considered false, misleading, indecent or illegal. Dhananjay Keskar, chairman of the ASCI, says, "Self-regulation is working well in the industry and there are enough checks from within the Council and industry. With the amendment in the Cable TV Act a few years back, which makes it mandatory for all advertisers (on television) to follow the industry code, the compliance rate has become even better. " Shashi Sinha, CEO of Lodestar Universal, agrees. "Over the last eight years or so, there has been a dramatic change, with companies now falling in line (with the code) as it's better to be safe than sorry, " he says.

"Compliance amongst advertisers is close to 95 per cent, with most misleading or erroneous ads being withdrawn incase they draw the ire of consumers or are violative of guidelines, " Sinha adds. (He throws in a disclaimer: he's a member of the 21-member Consumer Complaints Council of the ASCI which takes decisions on erring advertisers).

But there is a catch here. Action is taken against ads only when a complaint is filed with the ASCI. Complaints filed are either intra-industry or are made by consumer organisations. And in several cases the offensive ads are simply modified or withdrawn, instead of being penalised. The success rate of the selfregulatory body, set up in 1985, in getting advertisers to toe the line is evident from the fact that of the 20-odd complaints received by the council during January-April this year - including corporate biggies and MNCs like Maruti Suzuki India, Hindustan Unilever, Reliance Communication, Godrej Sara Lee, Dabur India, Yum Restaurants, Marico Industries, Vodafone Essar and Dabur India - over half the advertisements were either just withdrawn or modified.

A study of the complaints made to the ASCI reveal that these included misleading and even false commercials being aired on TV: for instance, depicting a mosquito repellant as a fragrance with actors inhaling it, or pushing a soap that promises "100% protection from swine flu". Some claims were ambiguous, clinically unproven or scientifically uncorroborated.

Advertising executives and companies however claim that their research is quite thorough. "Unless we are convinced, we cannot convince the target audience. So if we don't have all the information or the facts are not credible, we would not take it up, " says K Sridhar, national creative director of advertising firm Leo Burnett - the driving force behind the successful campaigns of HDFC Standard Life and McDonalds.
But often, in cases involving fairness creams, antiageing concoctions and other beauty products which offer miracles within a few weeks, there's a big mismatch between laboratory conditions (quoted in fine print by companies) and real life. If the cream or product does not have the desired effect, the consumer may feel "cheated and misled".

Sridhar says companies need to understand that they are dealing with human beings, who may err in terms of usage, frequency or consistency of the product. "As far as MNCs are concerned, a lot of investment in research is made before they make these claims. Scientifically, it may be correct, but lots of times companies are excited about their product and may dramatise the claims. We balance it out or tone it down so that the client does not go overboard (with the claim), " Sridhar adds.

Sources also say that the ASCI has recently changed its codes for the food and beverage segment. The new code prohibits ads portraying changes in intelligence, and physical/mental ability, unless scientifically proved. Speaking to TOI-Crest, Alan Collaco, secretary general of the ASCI, said earlier complaints against ads of fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) would add up to around 20 a month. Now, it has gone up 10 times to over 220 a month. Collaco says: "We are becoming very strict about advertisement claims. Companies making such claims are called into our office, asked to explain the basis of such claims. If they have done clinical studies to prove the claim, we grill them about the methodology, the sample size of the study, whether it was double blind, and whether the outcome being claimed was seen in statistically significant number of subjects by an individual institute. "

But doubts abound about the veracity and reliability of the research peddled around. Hence, the government now plans to ask companies to substantiate claims by getting third-party evaluation of their research done from independent and reliable agencies. But given the lack of effective accountability and a clear-cut penalty policy in this sector, it could be yet another toothless regulation.

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