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Consumer protection council sets up committee to regulate contents of advertisements
DID your shampoo lead to hair loss instead of removing dandruff as promised by the mesmerising advertisement by Kareena Kapoor? Did you try unsuccessfully to overcome fear the way Hrithik Roshan does in the commercial for a soft drink? You may now sue all those involved in advertising a product, right from manufacturer and advertising agency to artists, celebrities and the media platform, for making false claims.
On February 3, the Central Consumer Protection Council (CCPC), the apex body for consumer protection in the country, set up a committee to deal with false claims made in advertisements appearing on television, radio and in print. “Our focus is to hold everyone engaged in the production of an advertisement responsible for its contents,” says Ashim Sanyal, member of CCPC. Maximum false claims are made in commercials that are connected to health products and aimed at children. Manufacturers of these products often cite scientific statements to back their claims, informs Sanyal, a member of the committee. Milk supplements, including Complan of Heinz and Horlicks of GlaxoSmithKline Beecham Healthcare, which claim to provide high levels of energy and growth, are a case in point.
The sudden push for setting up the committee comes from the Madhya Pradesh High Court. The court asked the Union Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution to set up an ad-monitoring panel as recommended by the Vibha Bhargava Commission. The commission in its 2005 report underlined the urgent need to regulate advertisements. But the ministry did not act on it.
How to bell the cat
False claims in advertisements have been bothering consumer rights activists and the authorities for long. In November 2012, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) issued suo moto notices to 38 top selling brands, asking them to withdraw their “misleading” advertisements. The list included Complan, which claimed that the health drink increases a child’s growth by as much as two times, and Horlicks, which stated that children consuming the product grow “taller, stronger and sharper”. Kellogg’s was also pulled up for its claim that people who eat low fat breakfast like Kellogg’s Special K, tend to be slimmer than those who don’t.
In December 2012, responding to a query under the Right To Information Act, FSSAI said, “Legal actions have been initiated against the organisations by the Regional Designated Officers.” But there was no further information about the cases, and many advertisements continue to be aired.
India has guidelines in place for regulating false claims by companies, but they are not mandatory. Sanyal says the guidelines—National Voluntary Guidelines on Social, Environmental and Economic Responsibilities of Business—should be made legally enforceable. In case of false claims, all those engaged in an advertisement should be asked to publish or air an apology of the same length as the advertisement, he suggests.
H D Nautiyal, secretary of the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission, says it is not going to be easy to hold all stakeholders responsible for the content of advertisement. The government would have to amend the Consumer Protection Act of 1986, which holds only manufactures responsible for making false claims, Nautiyal says. “I have never come across a false advertising lawsuit by a consumer,” he adds.
Sanyal explains the reason for consumers’ apathy. “According to the Indian laws, the consumer will have to establish that they did not benefit from the product as claimed by the advertisement. This is tough,” says Sanyal.
But regulating advertisements for false claims alone may not be enough to deter manufacturers from fooling consumers. Consider this. An advertisement by Cadbury for Bournvita claims that the product enriches milk with vitamins and good bacteria that are lost during boiling. “In this commercial,” Sanyal explains, “Bournvita does not make a false claim but uses a loophole in our rules to promote the brand.” The lax rule fails to ensure that pasteurised milk that reaches our doorstep is healthy enough and can be drank without boiling. Pasteurisation (heating to a specific temperature and then immediately cooling it), slows the growth of disease-causing pathogens in milk. But pasteurised milk should be stored at below 7oC so that the pathogens do not spoil the nutritional value of milk. But the rule is applicable only till the milk is in the dairy factory where it is uploaded in trucks for transportation. A study by Delhi-based consumer forum Voluntary Organisation in Interest of Consumer Education in 2013 showed that all brands of milk in the capital city, other than Mother Dairy, failed nutritional tests before entering retail shops.
Revital, endorsed by Salman Khan, uses a legal loophole. The health supplement, meant for giving energy, was originally a medicated product. But pharma company, Ranbaxy Laboratories Ltd, tweaked Revital’s original composition to come out of the category of drugs, which is regulated and cannot be advertised like other products. “Several pharma companies are now looking at India as a market to sell products which are medicated but not regulated,” Sanyal explains. Several drug makers have secured approvals for such proprietary products as dietary supplements under the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act of 1954. Companies reap huge amounts from these dietary supplements, which contain drugs in sub-therapeutic quantities and little is know about their long-term health impact. Revital, for example, is the best-selling product in Ranbaxy’s kitty.
Celebrities to feel the heat
Consumer activists welcome the committee’s decision to hold endorsers responsible for the content of advertisement. Time and again studies have proved that claims, such as becoming fairer within a week, are misleading. Yet people buy products because they are endorsed by celebrities. “People try to emulate a celebrity’s looks which they think they lack,” says Amrita Sastry, sociology professor at Jesus and Mary College, Delhi University. Take for instance smooth skin of Madhuri Dixit even at 46 years of age. This is now the theme of Olay anti-wrinkle cream. “Advertisements reinforce this feeling of relative deprivation and create more want for the products,” Sastry adds.
Aggressive marketing of Fair and Handsome, endorsed by Shah Rukh Khan, is an example of how companies are creating the sense of relative deprivation for newer target groups and markets. “India’s obsession with fair skin has made it the biggest market of fairness creams in the world. The market has doubled to Rs 280 crore in the past five years,” says Sanyal.
But is it possible for a celebrity or a small-time actor to cross-check the authenticity of all claims they advertise? “It is the duty of an actor or a media group to do basic research about products they are advertising. They earn huge sums from the commercials,” says Sanyal. He says rules are yet to be framed but efforts towards cross-checking claims by all stakeholders should be evident. Recently, Amitabh Bachchan created a furore when in a lecture at the Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad he said that he stopped endorsing Pepsi after a little girl asked him why he promoted something that her teacher called poison. Bachchan was associated with Pepsi for eight years. But soon celebrities will have to check contents of the product before endorsing it, not after eight years of association.