After tobacco and alcohol, food and beverage brands, that together account for 16% of TV ad spending, are grappling with new rules proposed by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India. This category accounts for a little over half of the entire consumer goods sector.
The government body has laid out guidelines for a code of conduct for advertising for such brands. From soft drinks to chocolates to packaged snacks, all categories will have to be a lot more careful about the claims they make in their communication and the creative licence they use to market themselves.
The guidelines range from substantiating claims with authentic evidence, to refraining from portraying fatty foods as healthy and avoiding visuals such as large portions of food that may encourage excessive consumption.
Sunil Alagh, chairman of brand consulting firm SKA Advisors, believes the proposal is long overdue. He says that in the last couple of years, especially on health aspects of food, there has been a “huge amount of stretching”.
“I always feel in situations where somebody makes a false claim, it is very easy to get at that fraud or wrong claim. But the problem happens in what we call the grey area, and then you begin to stretch the concept of health,” Alagh says.
The companies, meanwhile, are treading with caution and are in discussions with industry bodies. While most were careful, not offering a comment, some firms such as PepsiCo India Holdings Ltd say responsibility is ingrained in their DNA.
Deepika Warrier, director (marketing) at PepsiCo’s snack unit Frito Lay, says: “We are very active members of the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), which already imposes a lot of self regulation in terms of not making ridiculous claims. We are also very compliant with the regulatory environment of the country, and are very responsible when we are marketing to children, for example. I think we are very responsible marketeers so I don’t feel very uncomfortable about this.”
Though the idea is to self-regulate, once the code comes into play, a brand can be penalized for breaking the rules. Even the Food Safety and Standards Act of 2006, from which these guidelines have been derived, prescribes a penalty of up to Rs10 lakh for a misleading food advertising.
The current proposal seeks to prevent communication that suggests changes in intelligence and agility after consuming a product. There are already very stringent guidelines about these internationally and, in India, advertising agencies say their job may get tougher.
Nakul Chopra, CEO, Publicis South Asia, says this is going to make the task of advertising more difficult. “What remains to be seen is how these guidelines are going to be imbibed and used. It’s one thing to write them. You have to see how they live. If it is going to mean the only thing you have to say about the brands are highly qualified statements, it will have an impact on the interest those messages create.”
Ogilvy and Mather chairman and creative director, South Asia, Piyush Pandey, says it is important to draw a clear line. “If you are claiming a direct relationship between one thing and the other, then you have to prove it. If you are not, then I think human beings are not dumb to not know.”
The debate over these guidelines is in the early stages. The Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry’s subcommittee on foods will take the decision on the technical details. For instance, it will dictate the permissible levels of sodium, sugar or fat that will justify advertising a product as healthy. ASCI’s consumer complaints council will address the complaints, using the code, once it has been finalized. The first draft of the code was sent to both bodies on Friday. Both are expected to respond in 10 days.
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