A study done by the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) has found that only 12 out of 332 advertisements related to COVID-19 were found to be scientifically correct.
Ads for products like paints, apparel, detergents, skin care, ACs, fans, water purifiers, plywood and laminates, supplements and food which made claims related to COVID-19 were scrutinised by ASCI in their study.
Speaking to BOOM Live, ASCI Secretary General Manisha Kapoor said that 2020 saw a surge in ads making healthcare claims and claims on germ protection which led to an increased scrutiny of the claims.
"Not only did we see an increased number of such claims, but also the sensitivity of the scrutiny was higher. Something which was an anti-germ claim in the past, when now you make it in this context (COVID-19 pandemic), ASCI was keen to see if it gives any protection against the coronavirus because that is the first impression that the consumer may have of such a claim," Kapoor said.
Kapoor said that the media and advertisers have increased responsibility during the COVID-19 pandemic adding that the ASCI regulations coupled with the Cable and Television Network Act can prevent misleading advertising from being created.
"I certainly see a big role for the media on this and I think either using the principles that ASCI has laid down or certain internal guidelines that they have. I think this is a time when all of us have to step up and have to be more responsible. It is not something about a short term business gain; it is really about saving lives and not being irresponsible about that," she said.
Edited excerpts of the interview follow
Walk us through what the report broadly found and how do you compare the degree of false claims in this space to any other space that you normally deal with?
Manisha Kapoor: This is based on the analysis of the advertisements that we scrutinised over the last financial year. And as you said yourself, some of these are complaints, and some are those we picked up through our own monitoring service. And certainly it was an exceptional year in the sense that healthcare claims and claims on germ protection, and brand promising direct protection from COVID-19, helping to build your immunity and all of those kinds of claims really was something that we saw in a different shade last year.
Not only did we see an increased number of such claims, but also the sensitivity of the scrutiny was higher. Something, let us say, was an anti-germ claim in the past, when now you make it in this context, an anti-germ claim, ASCI was keen to see if it gives any protection against the coronavirus because that is the first impression that the consumer may have of such a claim.
Or when you say anti-virus, in the past you may have given protection against a regular flu or regular cold, but today when you say antiviral, consumers would assume that it has some benefit against the current, prevalent virus and what we are all talking of. So, I think like I said, certainly there were more number of claims in this area. And ASCI scrutinises the standard of evidence that we needed, we definitely raised that standard as well.
Could you walk us through the process as well? How do you pick advertisements up and what happens then?
MK: We receive consumer complaints also on a daily basis. We could receive intra-industry complaints and we also have our own advertisement monitoring system called TAM. This monitors over 500 TV channels, 800 publications and 3000 digital websites and platforms, on a daily basis. So, we pick up ads ourselves that could be in potential violation of the ASCI code.
What happens is that when we receive an ad or a complaint, we write to the advertiser asking them for a substantiation of their claims. And in cases like this where there would be technical substantiation to be given they would respond with their point of view and also with their technical data. So, lab test reports, clinical trials, in vitro studies, etc. We have experts in over 25 disciplines--from microbiology, to market research, to chemical and formulations, to Ayurveda etc. A lot of them were kept very busy last year examining and scrutinising these claims that came in.
Once we scrutinise the evidence, it is taken to the Consumer Complaints Council, which will then deliberate on the matter, on the evidence that has come in and the advice from the expert as well as seeing what is the nature of the complaint and the advertisement. And then we deliberate on that and give the recommendation whether we believe that that piece of advertisement is in violation of that ASCI code, which means that it could be misleading or harmful or any other kind of violation of the code.
Do you have representatives from the medical profession including pulmonologists, or virologists?
MK: We have medical doctors as well on our panel. We have microbiologists who examined a lot of the data that came on COVID. So we have experts across a lot of disciplines, who would look at the data, depending on the nature of the evidence provided, really determine whether the evidence was really sufficient to justify the claim in the advertisement. Sometimes the evidence would support certain kinds of claims but was that the kind of claim that was made in the advertisement? Was there an over claim? So those are the kinds of issues that would be examined.
Could you give me an example of that?
MK: Let me take the example of ACs, which were categories that do operate in the space of providing clean air, in a sense of hygiene at home but for them to make the claims on protection or giving impression in their ads that they could protect in the current situation, we needed these devices to not only be antiviral themselves, in the sense, let us say a particle that touches the wall may get negated by the kind of technology they use, but for people in that room--I mean did it reduce the viral load in the room that you were there and finally these products are used in the home for people.
Let me give you the example of the fan, examples where the surface of the fan, if there was a virus which came into contact with the surface of the fan, so they did have technology that could kind of eliminate that virus. But what did it mean for the people in the room and did it therefore reduce the viral load of the SARS CoV2 virus in the room that people were breathing and did it make a material difference there. So, that was the nature of the examination that we saw where it was merely that the surface of the product itself that could remain viral free and not giving protection to people.
Especially in products where people would expect it if I switch on a fan or an AC the viral load in the room would reduce. In most cases, we were able to not find sufficient evidence in these cases.
When you reach out to these companies with these questions, do they respond swiftly or do they drag their feet?
MK: They do respond swiftly and we give them a certain number of days to respond. And unless, of course, there are very genuine circumstances, you know where they feel they cannot respond in the time that they have been given and therefore we negotiate for what is a reasonable time. But in most cases, in almost 95 percent of the cases, I would say that we get the response in the time that we have allocated.
Like I said, in most cases, it is not like they have no evidence but in many cases the evidence and the claim that they are making is not in sync. They may have some evidence. The way the claim is framed could mislead the consumers.
And what is the time frame for the process to take place?
MK: It usually takes between 2-6 weeks depending on how much evidence they provide, how much back and forth happens on that evidence. So in some cases when we write to the companies they immediately withdraw the claim. In many cases they will say that we understand that this may be an overstatement and they immediately withdraw.
In a sense that is the swiftest in market remedy. But where the case has to be formally investigated, where the evidence is provided, the experts have to go through it, it goes through the Council, it could take anywhere between 4 and 6 weeks in those cases but less days in case the company immediately withdraws.
We have seen fairly outlandish claims, including in alternate medicine in the last year. If I were to ask you to put on your marketers hat, is there any real impact of withdrawing a campaign if it has run for three to five days?
MK: I think that there is an impact. One is that they cannot use that advertisement again. And, I think in any kind of monitoring system or a self-regulation system there will be cases of hit and run. And there will be advertisers who maybe are not as scrupulous. I would say that in most cases, advertisers do take this seriously, they do withdraw the ad, they modify the ad, and yes, while it is out there in the public domain, yes, I mean there is some damage done but this makes them careful about making a similar ad the following time. So over a period of time there is a cumulative effect to these things.
At the end of the day, as a marketer, if I have put in a lot of effort in creating a campaign, then it is a huge disruption if I have to pull it off. It is a disruption in my marketing plans if I have to withdraw it or modify the claim it is a lot of resource spent. So, I would say that even withdrawing or modifying the ad even after it has run for a little bit, I would say is a fair disruption and therefore I would not think that advertisers would take that lightly.
Assuming that the advertiser has some sense of integrity, as we look ahead, COVID-19 is still with us and we are obviously nowhere near finding a cure though we have treatments for it and we have vaccines. What is the role of media platforms, intermediaries who disseminate these advertisements? Could they be doing more and how could they be if so?
MK: I think one of the things that ASCI has believed right from the beginning is that the advertising ecosystem must come together and not just the advertiser or the advertising agencies. So media and broadcasters are an essential part of that ecosystem. And in fact through the Cable and Television Network Act, the ad that violates an ASCI guideline cannot legally be shown on TV. So there is both a moral and legal obligation for media platforms to be more careful.
I certainly see a big role for the media on this and I think either using the principles that ASCI has laid down or certain internal guidelines that they have. I think this is a time when all of us have to step up and have to be more responsible. It is not something about a short term business gain; it is really about saving lives and not being irresponsible about that. So, I think everyone, right from a common citizen to a business owner to an advertiser to a media owner everyone has to step up.