For those who do not know, Abanti Sankaranarayanan is the chairperson of the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI). But why is she suddenly so important in my life? Because I am a law abiding citizen and Abanti is allowing the law to be played around with. And it is all militating my mind.
The ongoing Indian Premier League (IPL) tournament has more liquor ads than I can count. There are ads for Seagram’s Royal Stag, Royal Challenge, Signature, Black & White and Chivas. I may have missed out some. Abanti-ji why are you and ASCI turning a blind eye to this charade of surrogate ads that are openly selling liquor, and nothing else?
Black & White is advertising something called ‘Gettogethers’. Abanti-ji what exactly do you think Black & White is selling?
Royal Challenge has 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. Abanti-ji can you help me buy a bottle of Royal Challenge ‘sports drink’ please?
Signature is ‘selling’ (or just promoting) the spirit (pun intended) of ‘Start-ups’. Wonder why? Abanti-ji would you have any idea on whether Signature is now the newest venture capitalist in town?
Royal Stag is simply selling music CDs. So is Chivas Regal. Must be a really lucrative business for them to afford IPL TV spots at Rs. 9.5 lakhs per 10 seconds. Abanti-ji would you have any idea on how many music CDs are sold by Royal Stag or Chivas?
Abanti-ji, I am sorry to be asking such pointed questions. Perhaps difficult questions. But these questions do bother me. And frankly, as head of ASCI they should bother you too.
Abanti-ji, I think the Managing Editor of Campaign India, Prasad Sangameshwaran was absolutely bang-on when he wrote a piece titled, ‘Will ASCI’s fence eat the crops?’
on September 18, 2017. He went on to say, “Why does the appointment of Abanti Sankaranarayanan get an unfair share of attention? … First, it’s the industry that she represents that’s a cause for concern. As a chief strategy and corporate affairs officer at spirits major Diageo India, Sankaranarayanan has also
been the former vice chair at the Confederation of Indian Alcoholic Beverage Companies (CIABC). And the alcoholic beverage business is often on the wrong side of ASCI, with alcoholic beverages being banned from advertising in India. If any complaint of alcoholic beverages reaches the ASCI, it’s often for surrogate advertising. In the recent past, the reach of ASCI has been found wanting in some cases. For example, ASCI has limited jurisdiction over what content is uploaded online. In some instances, alcoholic beverage makers have been advertising with all grandeur on the online medium, sometimes with even the glass of spirits and bottle in full display. However, as one ASCi member confided, the regulator cannot do much if the ad in question is uploaded online from some other country. For an industry that prides itself with self-regulation, Sankaranarayan’s elevation to the top post, could well mean that it’s the ASCI that now comes under the scanner”.
Editor Sangameshwaran’s fears have all come true. The alcohol industry is flourishing, at least in advertising terms, unhindered and unstoppable by the benign dereliction of duty by Abanti Sankaranarayanan and her colleagues on the Governing Board of the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI). The flouting of norms is open. Brazen. Blatant.
Just to remind Abanti-ji, 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, 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.
This was not always the case. Both government authorities and watchdogs like the ASCI were actually more vigilant in the days gone by. There was a clearly understood norm that the so called surrogates would actually be able to support the cost of advertising and promotion, and could justify themselves as a legitimate business. Which is why Vijay Mallya actually launched a legitimate
mineral water business under the Kingfisher brand name. The same desire to legitimise the surrogate led him to brand his airlines as Kingfisher. Brand extensions like the Kingfisher calendar were born out of the same need. There was pressure on brand owners to build justified businesses under the surrogate and to justify that the volumes and value actually supported a viable business.
Much the same thinking led ITC to make a proper business out of Wills Lifestyle apparel. No wonder, Wills, the cigarette brand actually has brick-and- mortar stores in Agartala, Agra, Ahmedabad, Aizawl, Baroda, Bengaluru, Bhopal, Bhubaneswar, Bilaspur, Chandigarh, Chennai, Cochin, Dehradun, Delhi - NCR, Gangtok, Goa, Guwahati, Gwalior, Haldwani, Hyderabad, Imphal, Indore, Jaipur, Jalandhar, Jammu, Jodhpur, Jorhat, Kolkata, Lucknow, Ludhiana, Mumbai, Nasik,
Patiala, Patna, Pune, Raipur, Siliguri, Srinagar, Surat and Udaipur.... This is because till the 1990s, and till the early 2000s, brand owners were actually afraid of pushing surrogates that were ghost products. But no more. Because, unfortunately Abanti-ji is conveniently looking the other way, encouraging and even abetting brands to cheat on the law.
Royal Challenge too had a tough time when they bought the IPL Bangalore team franchise and christened it Royal Challengers Bangalore. There was a spate of court cases, with matters going as far as the Supreme Court. The highest court finally declined to entertain a public interest litigation petition that sought to restrain the cricket team promoted by industrialist Vijay Mallya from playing
under the banner ‘Royal Challengers’ in the Indian Premier League (IPL) matches, way back in 2008. A three-judge Bench, comprising Chief Justice K.G. Balakrishnan and Justices R.V. Raveendran and M.K. Sharma, dismissed the petition filed by one Krishan Kumar Aggarwal, who alleged that under the garb of ‘Royal Challengers Bangalore Team’, the United Breweries Group owned by Mr. Mallya was seeking to promote its liquor brand Royal Challenge. The court decreed in
favor of Mallya because ‘Challenge’ and ‘Challengers’ were two different words and not a ‘pass off’. The point to note for Abanti-ji is that creating real surrogates was felt to be a necessity till not very far back in time. Under her watch it just does not seem to matter. Liquor brands can get away with ‘gettogethers’ and ‘start-ups’ as a reason why to advertise.
Wake-up Abanti-ji. Wake-up ASCI. Wake-up Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.
There is a law. And some powerful entities are bent on breaking the law. You have a duty to the citizens of India to uphold and protect the law. Abanti-ji, the call of duty awaits you.
(Sandeep Goyal was a member of the Governing Board of ASCI in 2001-2002. He thinks the ASCI was more vigilant in the days gone by.)