New Delhi: It was a snazzy commercial designed to mark the launch of a global skincare brand in India and Procter and Gamble Co. (P&G) expected it to introduce the brand to the country’s growing population of young, working women with money to spare.
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It may have done that, but the ad for Olay Total Effects also attracted the ire of rivals, who thought its message was misleading and complained to the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), which ordered, in August, that it be pulled.
Olay was only one in an increasing number of over-the-top claims made in ads in the first nine months of last year that ASCI, the ad industry’s watchdog, deemed were misleading consumers.
ASCI’s Consumer Complaints Council upheld complaints against 47 ads between January and September 2008, up by seven from a year earlier. Of those 47 complaints, 32 had been over misleading claims, compared with just 17 a year earlier. The ads plugged products ranging from beauty creams and shaving blades to water purifiers and automobiles. One made a pitch for a toilet cleaner that ASCI said could be confused for a hair shampoo.
“Yes, it is correct that the number of misleading ads has gone up significantly,” said Alan Collaco, secretary general of ASCI.
Olay ran afoul of ASCI because it claimed to be “India’s best anti-ageing cream”.
“The firm (P&G) couldn’t substantiate the claim that Olay was India’s best anti-ageing cream. It was, therefore, misleading,” said Collaco.
Before passing judgement, ASCI gives firms a chance to support the claims they make in ads with data and research reports, Collaco said. “But in case they fail to do so, action is taken against such ads.”
P&G declined comment, but it wasn’t the only consumer products firm to come under ASCI’s scanner.
India’s largest consumer products firm by revenue, Hindustan Unilever Ltd (HUL), too, failed to back the claim made in an ad for its fairness cream Fair & Lovely. The ad claimed that Fair & Lovely was the “world’s No. 1 fairness cream”.
HUL told ASCI that the claim was based on data provided by market research firm ACNielsen on volume sales in key markets for fairness creams across the world, according to reports by the advertising watchdog that have been reviewed by Mint. It was later found that the data was limited to select markets. According to the report, the ad went off the air in August.
HUL denied the ad was misleading, noting it was based on independent, third-party data. “This data covers countries that contribute to over 75% of world population and are also the leading skin lightening markets across the globe,” a company spokesperson said.
“Across these markets, Fair & Lovely is the leading skin lightening brand with a market share of about 50% on an aggregate. The ACNielsen data does not include markets such as Europe, which have negligible skin lightening segments, and also, therefore, not tracked as such by ACNielsen,” he added.
“High consumer involvement categories, where the consumer needs to make a decision and looks for specifications, see these kind of practices,” said Hari Krishnan, vice- president of advertising agency JWT India. “While the plus point of giving specifics is that the ads and products get noticed, the downside at the same time is that companies throw themselves open to demand of claim substantiation. It is the choice of a company whether it is ready for that trade-off or not.”
Thus, ASCI asked Gillette India Ltd to withdraw an ad for Vector Plus blades that claimed that the “blade lasts for three weeks”, while the fine print beneath this assertion clarified that the claim was only good if a user shaved once every three days.
P&G acquired Gillette for $57 billion (Rs2.78 trillion today) in 2005, but in India, the two continue to function as independent firms.
Other high-profile companies pulled up by ASCI for airing ads with misleading claims include L’Oreal India Pvt. Ltd, Henkel India Ltd, Tata Teleservices Ltd, Haier Appliances India Pvt. Ltd, Hyundai Motor India Ltd, Dabur India Ltd, Eureka Forbes Ltd and VLCC Personal Care Pvt. Ltd.
L’Oreal’s ad for its Garnier Light Fairness and Dark Spots Prevention moisturizer said consumers can “get up to two tones fairer in just seven days”, a claim the company couldn’t substantiate.
Eureka Forbes claimed that only its Aquaguard Total water purification system “guards the liver, bones and digestive system”. Again, the claim couldn’t be substantiated by the firm in tests and trials.
Dabur had to withdraw the ad for its toilet cleaner SaniFresh Thick. The tagline for the ad was “The Secret of My Shiny Silky Hair”. According to ASCI, the ad was likely to be misconstrued as pitching a shampoo and cause confusion among consumers. Dabur declined comment.
ASCI formulated a code for self-regulation in advertising in 1985 and amended it in 1995 and 1999. The code is divided into four chapters and the first dwells on ensuring truthfulness and honesty in claims made by advertisers.
“Advertisements must be truthful. All descriptions, claims and comparisons, which relate to matters of objectively ascertainable fact, should be capable of substantiation,” says the code.
To ensure that the message hits home, ASCI has started an awareness campaign targeted at advertisers.
“We have started going to the companies to make them understand the self-regulatory code. Last year, we made presentations to 27 companies,” said Collaco. “Hopefully, this move will help trim the number of such instances.” Usually, firms respond by merely airing an edited version of the ad.
P&G, for instance, took its Olay ad off the air for sometime but soon relaunched an amended version, according to a person familiar with the development, who did not want to be identified.