Aug 30, 2023

You can't take the consumers for a ride: Rohit Kumar Singh cautions brands

The secretary of Department of Consumer Affairs delved upon consumer protection from an advertising lens, and more at the launch of ASCI Academy

You can't take the consumers for a ride: Rohit Kumar Singh cautions brands
Addressing the advertising industry at the launch of the ASCI Academy Rohit Kumar Singh, secretary, Department of Consumer Affairs (DoCA) spoke about consumer protection from an advertising perspective. 
The Advertising Standards Council of India unveiled the ASCI Academy on 28 August, an initiative poised to strengthen adland's capacity to create more responsible and progressive advertising campaigns.
Singh emphasised the importance of an academy such as this. He said, “In consumer protection, there’s a preventive side and there’s a post-factor side. While post-factor we are there to penalise, take necessary action etc., but if we are stronger on the preventive side, then many people who are ignorant of the line that should not be crossed will be more aware.”
“When you train people from the industry, from the government, and other stakeholders, it will do the whole ecosystem a lot of good in that one is not unaware there’s a problem and end up crossing a line.”
If someone knowingly crosses the line then of course it’s a different matter, and there will be measures at our disposal, the secretary added.
To put things in perspective, Singh listed out the tasks the DoCA undertakes, the first being inflation management, especially in terms of commodities. The second most important task, Singh said, is in terms of protecting the interests of consumers by assuring the ‘quantity’ and ‘quality’ of the product via the Consumer Protection Act.
While stressing on the government’s push for ease of doing business, the secretary said it is important to strike a balance between “business interests” and “consumer interests”.
Singh stated that the government is all for self-regulation, citing examples of it in EdTech and food safety standards. However, he continued, “When we talk of the ease of doing business, especially with regards to advertising, there is always a potential of ‘conflict’- between facilitating something and protecting the rights of consumers.”
“We have to strike a balance. So we want you to continue doing creative work, but there’s a line that we don’t want you to cross. We will keep annoying you as long as you cross the line,” he added.
Singh also underlined his appreciation for creativity and creative work, saying, “The whole essence of advertising is to be informative and engaging. So while it has to be factually correct, the creative expression is also to be given priority to make it interesting.”
Elaborating on the role of DoCA in consumer protection, Singh highlighted that the national consumer helpline is now omnichannel with forums at district, state and national levels. “We respond now in 17 languages. This is also the reason why the number of complaints has gone up because of the accessibility,” he said.
Sharing that the number of complaints to the national consumer helpline compared to the previous year has doubled, Singh said, “We get about one lakh complaints every month.”
On the advent of e-commerce and how the whole paradigm is shifting, Singh said, “The number of complaints about e-commerce on our national consumer helpline has increased 5-fold in the last 5 years, from previously 8% to 40% today. That means out of the one lakh complaints we get in a month, over 40,000 complaints pertain to e-commerce.”
Singh also weighed in on how the power balance between the consumer and the seller has now heavily tilted in favour of the “big e-commerce companies", which makes it more important that the ministry make a robust framework to protect the interest of the consumer.
The secretary also spoke about brands that tried fooling consumers during the pandemic.
"During Covid, two of India’s largest paint companies made claims that by using their paint, there would be no Corona. Kisko ullu bana rahe the (who were they fooling)," he asked.
"Everybody is always prepared to 'take the consumer for a ride', and not just Uber and Ola," Singh commented. He also called out the ride-hailing app, Uber for how its algorithm was tweaked in such a way that it overcharged a person who took the same route daily.
Observing how everyone seems to be selling ‘organic’ products nowadays, Singh also touched upon ‘Greenwashing’ and ‘circular economy’.
“Just because a product comes in a recycled package does not mean that the product inside is ‘green’. Or, just because there is a ‘green’ logo, doesn’t mean it is organic,” he cautioned.
That’s why it is our joint responsibility, concluded Singh. “When one talks of circular economy, I always say that it would take three to tango- the consumer, the producer and the regulators. Unless all three are on the same page it will not happen.” 
Campaign India

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