Hauling up ads for exaggeration: Is it a stretch?
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Hauling up ads for exaggeration: Is it a stretch?

The Advertising Standards Council of India recently hauled up Airtel’s 4G ads for being misleading.

By Arunabh Saikia

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The India-South Africa one-day series was heartbreaking for any serious cricket lover. The score line (3-2 in the latter’s favour) would suggest it was a close series. It was not. The Indians – particularly the bowlers – were very often made to look like a Mumbai school team.

As a viewer, though, the Indian team’s performance wasn’t the only thing that made me facepalm.

Right up there was Airtel’s advertisement of its 4G services. The ad had many versions, common across all of which was a chirpy young woman, challenging random strangers at random places to download random videos on their phones faster than her.

And if they did, she promised, they’d be waived off their phone bills in the future. Of course, no one ever won against our chirpy young lady. Moral of the story: Airtel 4G is badass fast and if you don’t have it, you are missing out on something important in life.

Interestingly, just a few days before the series had begun (I keep going back to the series because in the television era, every major sporting event is marked by that one ad), the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) had sent a notice to Bharti Airtel Limited, asking the company to withdraw these ads. The ASCI claimed that the advertisements were misleading and violated Chapter I.4 of its code, which is:

Advertisements shall not contain statements or visual presentation, which directly or by implication or by omission or by ambiguity or by exaggeration are likely to mislead the consumer about the product advertised or the advertiser or about any other product or advertiser.

Now, the ASCI is a self-regulatory body, which means its orders are not really legally binding, particularly ones that pertain to print and outdoor ads.  Television, though, takes it more seriously: The Cable TV Act prohibits cable networks from carrying ads that are not considered cool by the ASCI.

So, how did these ads make their way to our TV screens during the cricket series?  Well, because the ASCI said the order was not binding and the company could appeal against it, implicitly suggesting the ads could continue to be aired till the issue is resolved.

When I called up the ASCI to enquire about the status of the complaint (and the appeal), I was told by a person, who identified herself as the public relation officer of the authority, that she was not authorised to divulge any information on the issue.  She directed me to the secretary general of the council who too hasn’t replied to my email queries at the time of this story going online. The story will be updated if and when she does.

Irrespective of the fate of the ads, the entire episode is intriguing for reasons more than one. According to an article in the business daily, Mint, a consumer complaint led ASCI to serve the notice. The ASCI’s public relations officer told me that the council, as a policy, never revealed the complainant’s name. While the practice could be defended on the grounds of security, it lends the entire exercise a sense of opacity. After all, a complaint could always be motivated and a result of a corporate rivalry. Dilip Cherian, who has been part of the ASCI in the past, admits it is a legitimate concern, but says the “truth often comes out when the complaint in pursued”.  “If there is a pattern to complaints against a certain company, or if a set of people complain against the same company, it becomes clear that the complaint is a result of some corporate rivalry,” he says. The ASCI, Cherian says, tries to ensure that it doesn’t “unwittingly” become a medium to settle corporate scores.

An examination of the clause that the ad has been found to contravene also throws up some very fundamental questions about the very idea of advertising. The Airtel ads, according to the ASCI, are guilty of, among other things, exaggeration and ambiguity. But haven’t exaggeration and ambiguity been always integral to advertising? Puffery — the art of promoting a product through hyperbolic claims that can’t be objectively verified and refuted – is an old advertisement trick that is considered perfectly dandy the world over. According to Cherian, a “reasonable” amount of exaggeration is acceptable.

The word reasonable, though, is a tricky one in advertising and has been widely interpreted in the past. In 2010, an American consumer took Coca-Cola to court, alleging that the company was misleadingly advertising its line of Vitaminwater – which was essentially sugar water – as helpful to boost one’s immune system. Coca–Cola responded in a federal court by saying that “no consumer could reasonably be misled into thinking that Vitaminwater is a healthy beverage [emphasis added]”. The case still hasn’t been settled. As of last month, Coke has agreed to change the labels on the bottle but is not liable to pay damages to consumers who claimed they were misled into buying the drinks.

Most ad professionals I spoke to hinted that the trick is to make subjective exaggerations that don’t compromise on the core values of the product. “If something is in the brand window of your commercial, then it is sacrosanct to me, but if you’re making a metaphor, I’m okay with it,” says Swati Bhattacharya who heads the Japanese ad agency Dentsu’s India project Mama Labs. Explaining her stance, Bhattacharya said something like “our pizza delivery is as fast as someone’s bowling” is an acceptable metaphor.

What about Idea Cellular Limited’s commercials, which claim that using the network’s services is equivalent to attending a premier college? (The ASCI had issued a notice to Idea on the grounds that the ad was ambiguous and misleading.) The idea, Bhattacharya tells me, is to create a terminology that is easier to understand than the technology itself, when asked what she thought of them. “What was being sought to communicate was that the phone opens up avenues of information.” Shiv Nair, a young ad professional employed with the Mumbai-based firm Glitch, doesn’t quite agree with Bhattacharya. According to Nair, the ad didn’t cut ice with young thinking India as it fed on the insecurity that going to the IITs and IIMs is the only way to a successful career. Sarabjit Chaddha, an ad professional who runs his own ad agency now, says the level of exaggeration is often contingent on the client. “The bigger corporates have robust legal teams who advise them on what can be defended in court and not,” he says.

So what are young advertising students taught? To exaggerate, or not?  More pertinently, where do you draw the line? Shruthi Shetty, who teaches advertising in Manipal University, says it’s often difficult to explain to students because there is, according to her, no clear definition in the Indian ad industry. “Even the ASCI has no clear definitions; they treat complaints on a case-to-case basis,” she says. Shetty says the most important parameter usually is monetary implications. “The council is usually stricter with health and financial services, but strangely take no exception to fairness products, whose ads are usually grossly exaggerated.” Shetty, though, believes Airtel’s ads weren’t misleading as such. “The idea was to convey that 4G is faster than 3G, so I don’t think they were really problematic as such.”

According to a person closely associated with Airtel’s campaign, one of the primary contentions of the company’s challenge against the ASCI notice is that the speed of the Internet is dependent on a range of external factors. “The number of people on the network, what time of the day it is – all of that contribute to the actual speed the user gets, so fastest is essentially a subjective entity.”

Subjective or not, Airtel’s “challenge” ads seem to have gone off air for now. They have been replaced by a new set of ads. In a strange coincidence, India’s performance in the Test series has remarkably improved.

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