I think I deserve a round of applause. Actually, a big round of applause!
Last evening, the advertising and media website of a pink daily, ran an anchor story saying, “ASCI bans surrogate advertising of 12 liquor companies”.
It was music to my years. I have, over the past three years, waged a lonely battle against surrogate ads, and tried really hard to get the advertising industry watchdog, the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) to rein in these liquor brands masquerading under different surrogates, mostly notional, and only created to cleverly (and deviously) circumvent the law. Despite all my persuasive writings, and much protestations on surrogate advertising, ASCI either turned a deaf ear or tried to evade/obfuscate the issue.
Any case, back to yesterday’s media report. Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) has banned surrogate advertising of 12 liquor companies which were violating its code following an investigation which started last year. Royal Stag (selling Mark of Purity), Sterling Reserve (Packaged Water), Blenders Pride (Music CDs) were all very active during the IPL, and were therefore believed to be under the scanner. Following the liquor brand extension advertisements that appeared during the Indian Premier League on OTT platforms and print media (and which yours sincerely repeatedly brought to the notice of the ASCI), the watchdog body took up 14 complaints. In two cases, the advertisers apparently agreed to withdraw the advertisements immediately. The other 12 cases were taken to ASCI's Consumer Complaints Council (CCC), the industry body said without naming any brands.
The media report went on to quote Manisha Kapoor, secretary general, ASCI, who went on record to say, “All these advertisements were found to be in violation of the ASCI code, as advertisers failed to convince the Consumer Complaints Council (CCC) that these were genuine brand extensions, or that they did not have direct or indirect cues of the category whose advertising is restricted or prohibited”. Kapoor, also added for good measure, “In four cases, we have received a review petition with the advertisers submitting further data and arguments. These are under process now”. As per protocol, advertisements against which complaints are upheld are not allowed to be published or broadcast pending the review process.
My run-in with ASCI dates back three years, to April 2018, when I asked in Campaign whether the ASCI president (coincidentally from the liquor industry!) was sleeping.
I pointed out to her even back then that:
- Surrogate ads for Seagram’s Royal Stag, Royal Challenge, Signature, Black & White and Chivas were running on IPL.
- Black & White was advertising something called ‘Gettogethers’. I had asked Abanti Sankaranarayanan, the ASCI president, what exactly she thought Black & White were selling?
- Royal Challenge had India’s cricket captain Virat Kohli peddling a ‘sports drink’. I tried buying the drink at my local grocer’s. It wasn’t available. I tried the local supermarket. It wasn’t available. I tried the internet. It wasn’t available. I asked the ASCI president if she could help me buy a bottle of Royal Challenge ‘sports drink’?
- Signature was ‘selling’ (or just promoting) the spirit (pun intended) of ‘Start-ups’. I wondered why?! I had asked Abanti if she would have any idea on whether Signature were the newest venture capitalist in town?
- Royal Stag was simply selling music CDs. So was Chivas Regal. I had asked Abanti if she would have any idea on how many music CDs were sold by Royal Stag or Chivas?
Abanti’s response to all my questions had been a stoney silence.
My daughter, Carol Goyal, a lawyer by training, had back then filed multiple complaints with ASCI against various brands. She chronicled the fate of all those complaints in a piece in Campaign. The complaints all got nowhere.
I kept my peace over the next couple of IPLs as I felt newer incumbents at ASCI too would do little to curb the menace of surrogates. I did try once to engage with one of the former presidents on the new Consumer Protection Act but he just cut me out. When Subhash Kamath, an advertising veteran, and former colleague took over the reins of ASCI in 2020, I had high hopes. I wrote him an open letter drawing his attention to the provisions of the law, “The Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995, Rule 7(2)(viii) clearly prohibits the direct or indirect promotion and advertisement of & cigarettes, tobacco products, wine, alcohol, liquor or other intoxicants & where in the advertisement are not to use particular colors and layout or presentations associated with the prohibited products. In all of the ads referred above (already mentioned in that article), exact logos and styles of the alcohol brands are being used as is. There is no attempt to hide. Or pretend. Or even ‘pass off’. Brand graphics of the liquor brands are being used in toto by them in the so called surrogates. But the reality is that the surrogates actually do not exist” and requested action.
Subhash Kamath promptly replied to my open letter. But promised nothing.
Since he promised nothing, he delivered nothing, except some elaboration on procedures. I responded asking him not to quote process but to demonstrate purpose.
Finally, almost at the fag end of the IPL, ASCI did acknowledge that they had sent out notices to erring brands, but in my blog in Campaign, I simply said ‘too little too late’.
Well, now that the ASCI’s CCC has red-carded a dozen brands, my take is:
- Why did it take so long for the CCC to decide on what were without doubt ‘open-and-shut’ cases? The surrogates were visibly designed to dodge the law. By allowing them to air and influence below-LDA (legal drinking age) audiences, was the ASCI adequately performing its watchdog function? Who should be held accountable for the delay, and its consequences?
- Why has ASCI not put the names of the brands against whom complaints have been upheld on its website? As of last night atleast no such information had been publicly shared. Wonder whom is ASCI protecting?
- Is the only punishment to the erring brands that they can’t run the CCC rejected commercials on air? Or have the specific surrogates themselves been disallowed? Why doesn’t ASCI enlighten the general public on specific actions taken? Why the hesitation?
Despite all of the above, I owe a big ‘Thank You’ to Subhash Kamath, president ASCI. Atleast under his watch some action has finally, and visibly, got taken. Precedents have been created. I still think it has taken too long.
But, better late, than never!
Dr. Sandeep Goyal has been crusading against surrogate advertising for years. He feels that liquor brands should not be allowed to circumvent the law.
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