Covid-fueled ad claims lead over 6149 complaints in FY 20-21: ASCI

Only 12 out of 332 ads were able to substantiate the claims they made.

Mumbai: While FY 2020-21 was a rough one for the advertising industry because of the turmoil caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, consumers too were vulnerable to the, sometimes far-fetched, claims made by brands. In this scenario, the role played by the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) in protecting consumer interests was vital. 

In all, 332-covid related ads were picked up by ASCI through consumer complaints as well as its own monitoring, of which only 12 ads were actually able to substantiate the claims they made, as per the latest annual complaints report released by the self-regulatory body. These advertisements belonged to categories across the board such as paints, apparel, detergents, skincare, ACs, fans, water purifiers, plywood and laminates, supplements, and food- all promising Covid related benefits.

Besides Covid complaints, the ASCI Consumer Complaints Council (CCC) also processed 1406 complaints in the education sector, 285 complaints against food and beverage advertisements, and 147 complaints related to personal care. In addition, 364 advertisements were found to be, prima facie, in violation of The Drugs and Magic Remedies Act.

From the first quarter itself of the pandemic, following a directive from the Ministry of AYUSH asking for ASCI to identify advertisements that violated its advisory dated 1 April 2020, the advertising body escalated 237 objectionable ads. While 164 ads complied and modified the untrue claims, 73 covid-related ads needed further investigation and action by the Ministry due to non-compliance.

The self-regulatory body’s independent Consumer Complaints Council (CCC) convened 37 times during the year, and ASCI achieved a 97 per cent compliance rate from advertisers on its recommendations, scoring a strong point for the efficacy of self-regulation, said the report.

In September 2020, ASCI tied up with TAM to monitor 3,000 digital platforms. Since then, it has observed a rise in complaints related to online ads, both received from end consumers, as well as taken up suo motu. 35 per cent of the advertisements looked into by the CCC were from the digital medium.

ASCI’s expert panel that comprises highly seasoned microbiologists were kept busy examining Covid related evidence provided by advertisers, said the report. Given the rampant exploitation of vulnerable consumers in the pandemic situation, the industry watchdog issued a Covid advisory in October 2020, giving advertisers a clear directive to fully substantiate their Covid related claims through recognized testing facilities. 

The pandemic year also saw a massive jump in online gaming activities and concerned with the unabated rise of online real money gaming advertisements which did not explain risks to consumers in a transparent way, ASCI developed guidelines for the sector. ASCI processed 67 complaints related to online real money gaming from Jan-March 2021.

Its initiatives and guidelines helped brands, agencies, and other stakeholders cope with a changing marketing paradigm and shape the industry’s narrative in one of its toughest phases ever.

ASCI secretary-general Manisha Kapoor said, “In a period where consumer vulnerabilities were at an all-time high, many brands took unfair advantage of this, and tried to peddle their wares without establishing any robust evidence of their actual utility against the SARS Cov-2 virus. ASCI has worked hard to weed out such advertisements by using very stringent standards of evidence. Brands that offer proven benefits to consumers have a genuine role in the pandemic, but unfortunately, most of the Covid-related advertising fell woefully short. Most advertisers were unable to prove that the products actually worked to help consumers in a real way as claimed in the ads.”

ASCI also launched the Trust in Advertising report in partnership with Nielsen IQ and the Indian Society of Advertisers, and the ‘Chup Na Baitho’ awareness campaign for consumers, encouraging them to report objectionable claims in advertising.

In addition, ASCI recently released detailed guidelines for influencer advertising. These guidelines make it mandatory for influencers and brands to specify what content is promotional in nature. Influencer marketing is mainstream now and the guidelines, that were the need of the hour, were welcomed by all stakeholders and are being implemented.

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