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“2020 was a gamechanger; 2021 will underscore the change,” says Manisha Kapoor, who was appointed secretary-general of the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) the premier self-regulatory body in September this year.

In this exclusive piece for The Drum, Kapoor looks back at the year 2020, how it fared for the advertising regulatory industry and what 2021 could have in store.

Covid-19 was already upon us when the year rolled over, but few would have imagined its effect on 2020. Most were taken aback by its rapid spread and the resultant economic carnage. As media and consumption altered dramatically, so did brand strategies. We at the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) also embraced work from home and the new normal. While several books could be written about how the marketer’s world changed, let me focus on the five significant developments that we see from an ASCI lens.

Protecting the consumer via the Consumer Protection Act, 2019

Perhaps the most significant development was the notification of the Consumer Protection Act, 2019. As the industry scrambled to make sense of its far-reaching provisions and penalties, ASCI welcomed this Act as a further step in the protection of consumer rights and creating a level playing field for honest advertisers. Our recent efforts on the gaming guidelines in collaboration with three government ministries helped us in further strengthening ties with different regulators. Building further on our successful history of partnering with the government will certainly be a big part of our plans for 2021.

Regulating the exploitation in the name of Covid

Everyone wanted to contribute to the Covid-19 solution. It didn’t matter whether they were selling food, paints, apparel, detergents, appliances, mattresses or furniture. An alarming number of brands started to participate in the health conversation, some of whom had no business doing so. This has kept us on our feet, sorting out brands that could genuinely help consumers on the basis of real scientific evidence versus those who are trying to exploit consumer fears to make a quick buck. Based on an analysis of the kind of claims being touted and expecting the pandemic to be with us for a while, an advisory was developed for advertisers telling them in no uncertain terms what evidence would be required for them to make a COVID-related claim. We hope these usher in more responsible advertising.

Taking a stance on the social backlash

The polarised and hardening views about society, culture, history, which are now a worldwide phenomenon, began to impact advertising content. An advertisement by a jewellery brand showing a pregnant woman in an inter-faith marriage faced a fierce backlash. With social media being a fertile ground for fanning every view, showrooms and employees of the brand were under threat, forcing a withdrawal of the advertisement, even though it violated no guidelines or laws.  Brands and advertisers have always needed to keep emerging social sensibilities in mind, and this new ‘offend-me-not’ becomes another item on this checklist. 

Increased tracking of digital

The pandemic accelerated the migration of consumers to digital platforms. ASCI spotted this early and began tracking more than 3,000 digital platforms this year to spot misleading advertisements. With this, we are now monitoring more than 80% of advertising spends in India. Incidentally, the share of digital in media spends has crossed 30% already and will continue to increase. The merging of content with commercial messages, the fluidity of digital advertisements, the nature of advertisers that throng these media are all important challenges that ASCI will need to look at.

Shifting the advertising responsibility from buyer to seller

Just as the year was nearing an end, there erupted a honey controversy based on test results published by a leading consumer rights organisation. ASCI found itself in the middle of it, and all we can say is that we possibly haven’t heard the last of it yet. In a larger sense, brand reputations have never been more vulnerable and close scrutiny from all stakeholders means that advertisers need to watch every word of what they put into their advertisements. Caveat Emptor (buyer beware) is clearly shifting to Caveat Venditor (seller beware).

What is in store for 2021

With all predictions of 2020 in the bin, very few things can be said with certainty. But one thing that is absolutely upon us is the ‘nowness’ of our times. Think of it, you place an order for food via any of the popular apps. You want to know exactly how long it will take to reach you and even then, you are constantly checking on the status of the order and then exactly where the delivery person is and, finally, willing him or her to hurry up even if they are just a couple of minutes away.

People want everything now – patience is no longer a virtue. At ASCI, all complaints go through a rigorous process to ensure the quality of the decision. We need to examine allegations and responses, look at evidence and discuss the matter before ruling on it. This takes time. How do we balance this with the consumer need for ‘instant’ justice?

We are constantly thinking about how to make our processes faster and more efficient without compromising the integrity of our decisions. Now that is a challenge that might be even tougher for us than the ones, we had in 2020.

2021 will be an interesting year. We cannot wait to get stuck in.

Manisha Kapoor is secretary-general of the Advertising Standards Council of India.