I want to increase respect for & relevance of ASCI: Srinivasan K Swamy
Srinivasan K Swamy, Chairman and Managing Director, RK Swamy BBDO, was last week unanimously elected Chairman of the Board of the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI). As a member of the Board of Governors for close to 10 years, he has been an advertising professional for nearly four decades and has provided active support to Self-Regulation.
AdGully spoke to Srinivasan K Swamy immediately after his election to know more about his agenda as the ASCI Chairman. Excerpts:
What are the three key things on top of your immediate agenda as the ASCI Chairman?
It is very difficult to make changes in an association like ASCI, which has got a 30-year history – it has got a set process and people who have been guiding it for long, therefore, the impact that you will be making is not a sweeping impact. Things are already in place and there’s nothing wrong with them, but because the canvas is ready for you, you would want to make the most of it. Here, the contours are clear and things are on a set path, so to talk about the three things that I would like to achieve is kind of difficult to outline.
But one thing that I would like to do is to get people to respect ASCI more. Today, there are no significant advertisers or agencies whose life is not affected by ASCI. Regardless of what a few handful people say about ASCI becoming ‘irrelevant’ and that we have lived beyond our ‘relevance’, I would want to increase the relevance of ASCI. I intend to do this by talking about the decision-making process of ASCI. Today, the Council has no problems in getting complaints on offending ads because of services like NAMS (National Advertising Monitoring Service) and GAMA (Grievance Against Misleading Advertisement). We also have our own app and an online process for registering complaints.
Our current concern is to get people to realise how we process those complaints and how fair the decision is. We have the Consumer Complaint Council (CCC), which is independent on the Board of Governors at ASCI and the CCC has members from civil society as well as some people from the advertising industry. As for the composition of the CCC, as I have said, a majority of members are from civil society, constituting consumer activists, doctors, lawyers, educationists, etc. They decide on whether an ad is misleading or offending or truthful; I don’t think people realise that the decision is made by real people who are consumers of advertising themselves. They are the people who are actually affected by advertising and those whose opinions matter. It is not like a board of directors that is influencing the decisions. Even the constitution prohibits the directors from directly or indirectly influencing the decisions.
Thus, there are all kinds of misconceptions about ASCI, which I intend to dispel. I think that respectability will happen once the new Consumer Protection Act comes into force. Hopefully, it will have a more deferential role for ASCI.
The proposed amendment to the Consumer Protection Bill wants celebrity brand endorsers to be also penalised for appearing in misleading ads. Does ASCI plan to take up this issue with the Government?
From whatever I have read in the media, they already have diluted the initial proposal of actually fining them or sending them to jail. It doesn’t matter if they fine them, because it will be the advertisers who will be paying if they all have back to back contracts for fines levied on them. There is only so much that celebrities can figure out about a product or brand that they are endorsing as an outsider. They are only echoing the views and promises that they are led to believe that the advertiser will deliver, so you can’t hold the celebrity responsible for any wrong doings. There are celebrities promoting real estate properties, saying that they are doing very well nowadays. The fact of the matter is that they did well at some point, but due to market forces they are not able to perform as well as they thought they would, but the intentions at the time the celebrity was talking about the real estate developer was honourable. I think this is something that people should realise. The Government also realises that sometimes the circumstances can be restrictive and hence, the celebrities can’t be held responsible.
Most celebrities are very conscious before they endorse a brand, they do not just blindly go and sign up for a brand for the money, they also have their reputation at stake. But sometimes some wrong calls get made and I think it is the advertiser who should pay the penalty for the claim that the celebrity made. The ASCI code is very clear that celebrities are not supposed to endorse or support products or services that are directed towards minors, products that have health warnings like pan masala.
Do you think that advertisers have started taking more liberties in their brand promotion and communication, which is why there has be an increase in vigilance?
I think there is enough vigilance and clarification today. The Government of India, Department of Consumer Affairs and FSSAI have signed MoUs with ASCI. Most advertisers want to make claims that are fairly reasonable which is why you don’t have many complaints; they are also good corporate bodies and want to do things that are right. We don’t think that all corporate bodies want to mislead the public; had that been the case, the world would have been a chaotic place. Thus, most people are sensible. One or two claims that they make may be seen as an overstatement and that case is picked up by ASCI. Of the 30,000 or so ads that come out, when you look at how many actually get pulled up for being misleading or offensive, that’s a very insignificant percentage. It only tells you that people are generally truthful and decent about what they are doing. They have to satisfy that the claim they are making is genuine. In a business process if they define something wrong, they on their own decide to call for a debate, and I think it’s a fair thing to do and most advertisers are like that. Bad advertising, wrong claims will dissatisfy the consumers and they will throw you out tomorrow.
You have been in the industry for four decades now and have been witness to so many changed in the industry. What is the 360 degree view of advertising from where you stand today?
I think this is the exciting time to be in this industry. So much of change is happening, not just in the media side but also in the consumer side and the availability of products and services. The delivery mechanism is going through enormous changes. The media environment is changing. In fact, everything is changing at a phenomenal speed. If you master this change and lead the change, you can rule this environment. It is the younger generation that is leading this change and, therefore, they are reaping the rewards. Today, change is achieved from multifarious points.