Anju buys the best cooking oil from the market. For her, the term ‘best’ is often driven by the claims that the brand advertises on television. Apparently, oils these days are not just something that one uses to make the food taste better or to stop the food from sticking to the pan for that matter. They claim to be heart-friendly, reduce cholesterol somehow and are even filled with antioxidants (lots and lots of them!). However, despite her best efforts, Anju fails to control the cholesterol levels of her foodie husband Prakash. The bad genetics, sedentary lifestyle and an even worse eating habit are taking Prakash’s cholesterol levels to newer heights. But Anju continues to keep her faith on the oil that is advertised thrice between her favourite TV-show and claims “heart friendly”. And unfortunately, Anju is not alone.
Lack of awareness
In 2020, the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), a self-regulatory body to address the misinformation in advertisements, investigated complaints on suo moto basis against nearly 250 advertisements. Out of these, more than 160 advertisements were related to healthcare. This number is a clear indication of how grave the situation is. The situation was even worse during the pandemic.
Manisha Kapoor, Secretary and CEO, ASCI, says “If you look during the COVID-19 pandemic, only 12 of 332 ads related to COVID-19 were found to be scientifically correct. In fact, ASCI was directed by the Ministry of AYUSH in its advisory on April 1, 2020, to track such ads”.
Why do we see so much misinformation in advertisements?
Misinformation in advertisement is not something that is just limited to India or underdeveloped countries. Developed nations with high literacy rates are equally affected with the problems of fake health information spreading through advertisements.
“Misinformation is not an issue that is unique to India or to any specific industry. However, it may be more rampant in some countries as compared to others”, said Nikunj Mahajan, an advertising professional with over a decade of experience. Mahajan who currently is posted as the Director of an international ad agency has handled a number of multinational brands during his stint in India. “There is a lot of pressure on marketing professionals and brand managers to show return on investment (ROI). Creative team including copy writers are not doctors. Creative taglines are often things said in jest. I doubt anyone actually intends to spread misinformation through their brand messaging”, says Mahajan.
While Mahajan may have a point, some of the claims used in advertising are surely dubious. From a supplement drink’s genetic defying claim about increasing your height to a toothpaste that promises to make your teeth enamel unbreakable – all claims are troublesome.
When pointed out Mahajan agrees. “You cannot control these things without proper guidelines in place. Unless there is an accountability being put on someone’s head to fact check claims before they are pushed out for production, this will not stop”, says Mahajan.
Effective system to deal with misinformation
India has two independent bodies to tackle misinformation in advertising. One is a government regulation body called the Central Consumer Protection Authority (CCPA), created under the Consumer Protection Act, 2019 (CPA), which is responsible for the regulation of matters related to the violations of consumer rights, unfair trade practices and misleading advertisements. In order to address the violations like misinformation, the authority regulates all the mediums of advertisements including television, print, radio, outdoor and digital. The other body is ASCI that was formed in 1985 with the support of advertisers, advertising agencies, media and members and organisations from associated professions like PR agencies, etc.
“According to Section 21 of the CPA, 2019, the authority has the powers to stop false or misleading ads. If CCPA finds any advertisement ‘false or prejudicial to the interest of the consumer’, it can impose a fine up to Rs 10 lacs along with imprisonment for up to two years on the producers or endorsers”, informs Advocate Rakesh Taneja, a senior lawyer based in Delhi. In the cases of repeated offence, this fine may go up to Rs 50 lacs and additional imprisonment up to 5 years.
While CCPA is focused on misleading ads, the ASCI code covers three other areas of inappropriate representation including indecent or offensive, unsafe and harmful products or situations, and unfair competition in advertising. “We work in close collaboration with government bodies, including the CCPA, Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting as well as the Ministry of Ayush. We also collaborate closely with regulators like the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) to constantly update and fine-tune our guidelines and formulate newer ones to keep abreast with the changing landscape of advertising”, says Kapoor.
Need of the hour
Companies have gotten away with a lot of misinformation and false claims in their advertisements time and again. However, the government in collaboration with an organisation like ASCI is making efforts to seal the loopholes. Kapoor said, “With the CPA, 2019 coming into effect, any loopholes in the system are being closed. The CCPA is a very robust mechanism and with monetary penalties and the possibility of erring advertisers facing jail time, we are seeing the system improve rapidly. Even the celebrities have to now follow strict due diligence about the products and services they endorse”.
While regulation will of course create responsibilities, but the importance of creating a large-scale awareness about the evils of health misinformation among ad makers and consumers is important. Today, there are independent third party fact checkers who can help you fact check any health message before you act on it. Consumer awareness initiatives where users fact check every claim before they believe will be able to drive cleaner brand messaging. “Brands will be very conscious if consumers start pointing out the loopholes in their messaging. That’s not the kind of negative publicity any brand will want”, says Mahajan.
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