The famous actor, humorist, newspaper columnist Will Rogers had cleverly referred to advertising as the art of convincing people to spend money they don’t have for something they don’t need. Advertisements are made to encourage or persuade an audience to continue with or to take on some new purchasing activity and are intended to enhance awareness regarding the product. But recently, there have been cases where certain advertisements have been misleading and are aimed at deceiving the customers.
In December 2016, the `30 billion company Patanjali was fined `11 lakh for misleading advertising. The charges were misbranding and misrepresentation of its products. While Patanjali remains a recent example of how irresponsible advertising could lead to legal intervention, there have been many other similar instances. In the past, companies like Dannon were legally pulled up for false “scientifically” proven benefits, Volkswagen for exaggerating the environment friendliness of its cars, New Balance shoes for its claims in reducing weight by wearing their sneakers and the all too famous Red Bull campaign which “gives you wings” came under the scope for false or exaggerated claims. Yet advertising has done its job by making certain lines, jingles, slogans stick. Once they are a part of the consumer’s psyche, it has already done half its job.
Responsible advertisement principles seem to be lost in the canter of ambitious campaigns. According to figures by eMarketer, $592.43 billion was spent in advertising in 2015 globally. While global spending on advertising is surprisingly seeing a drop in 2017, Asia-Pacific region will see a growth of 5.4%. According to the CNBC report of December 2016 authored by Lucy Handley, such an increase is quite significant keeping in mind the present global economic scenario.
The Pitch Madison report estimated that 2016 brought a growth of almost `50,000 crore for the industry in India but lost its chances of going beyond that, primarily because of the economic jolt of demonetisation. In spite of that, it registered to an impressive 12.5% growth, proving that Indian advertising industry is fast flourishing in bad times.
But what does responsible advertising mean in this new age? The advent of digital advertising has complicated the answer to that question. Digital media has come to occupy a significant part in overall media spending in the country but it too received a setback due to demonetisation. Another report by eMarketer suggests a significant rise in mobile advertisement spending in 2017. The spending percentage on mobile adverts is expected to grow by 85%, a growth triggered by free access to the internet through smart phones.
In light of these developments in the advertising industry, the accountability of ad campaigns when it comes to misleading, false or biased campaigns has increased as well. For example, a three second video advertisement released by Dove earlier this month was met with public outrage, prompting Dove to apologise. The ad depicted racial bias.
Sunitha Suresh, a Senior Consultant at a leading Mumbai-based ad firm told, “In my view, responsible advertising is creative work that has a positive impact on society, or is created with an intention for positive impact on society, without exploiting the various clichés which are abundant in society.” She further adds, “It operates within an ethical framework and there cannot be room for flexibility.”
This holds especially true for brands like Rin and even giants like Apple whose ads have caused some stir. Apple adverts showed an iPhone 7 Plus but the text read, “The amazing iPhone 7 is here”. The misleading nature of this ad and the claims of Rin detergent having antibacterial powers came under the radar of the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI).
In some cases, advertisements have been completely contrary to offers and claims. For instance, a Bharti Airtel advertisement claimed that on switching to their Airtel-V Fiber, customers can make free local and STD calls. However, in reality customers have to pay to avail this offer.
Suresh informed, “It (responsible advertising) cannot and must not be viewed as moral tenets with black and white lens as that can sometimes go against one of the core objectives of advertising which is to create change. It is often relative and subjective. It is a complex and dynamic triage of brand impact, and hopefully profit, accountability to clients and socially balanced story telling.”
Hence responsible advertising must strive to strike a balance. It is unrealistic to imagine that campaigns would take up the most socially responsible stance but responsible advertising doesn’t mean just that. It also means not engaging in blatant deception and blowing claims out of proportion.