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In early March, the ministry of consumer affairs announced its intention to establish a National Consumer Protection Agency (NCPA). The putative trigger for this was the inability of the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) to adequately defend the consumer against errant advertising.

Before questioning the propriety of such an initiative from the government, one needs to understand the objectives and functioning of ASCI.

Jayachandran/Mint

While these principles were first spelt out 27 years back, they continue to represent an elegant, comprehensive and yet compact enumeration of the areas where advertising needs regulating.

ASCI is managed by a board of governors and gives action to its principles and codes of practice through a 21-member Consumer Complaints Council (CCC), nine drawn from ASCI’s membership and 12 non-advertising professionals representing civil society. This is crucial: a majority of CCC members are from outside the advertising fraternity to ensure that the voice of civil society and the ordinary consumer is heard above all others in CCC deliberations.

As a self-regulatory body, ASCI is only as good as the participation it can enlist from the widest cross section of society. ASCI regularly advertises nationwide on TV and print to encourage consumer complaints. While these campaigns have a temporary effect of boosting the complaint volume, they soon drop back to their trend level.

We must understand that ASCI is not an advertisement policeman. It does not, and can never have the resources to track every piece of advertising produced in a single city, much less the entire country. It places a burden of self-regulation upon advertisers, agencies and media owners to prescreen every piece of commercial communication to ensure its compliance with the ASCI code. If these constituencies do not put in place processes to self-regulate there is nothing ASCI can do to help. Indeed, this is precisely where we are today.

Diligent efforts by the ASCI Board and the Secretariat to actively evangelize self-regulation in all these constituencies yields little result and large volumes of egregious violations routinely get published or broadcast.

All self-regulatory bodies must adopt a sensible combination of proactive and reactive methods to ensure that their intent is robustly and consistently translated into action. Sensitizing stakeholders about the self-regulatory code and providing them templates for implementing it within their organizations is singularly the best, most sustainable approach to proactive self-regulation. Reactive methods, CCC-like peer review processes should only become necessary by rare exception when the internal process fails to intercept a code violation.

This is not unprecedented even in India.

The News Broadcasting Standards Authority, the News Broadcasters’ Association’s self-regulatory body places primary emphasis on proactivity by energetically promoting, indeed evangelizing its code of ethics and broadcasting standards. In addition, if a situation of a critical or controversial newsbreak is imminent, NBSA issues clear dos and don’ts in an industry advisory. The positive effects were on display in the restraint shown by TV news channels last year during the announcement of the decision in the Babri Masjid/Ram Janmabhoomi case by the Allahabad high court.

Perhaps ASCI’s self-regulatory model could do with a few tweaks. But before blaming ASCI for doing a shoddy job, ask yourself this. Have advertiser, agency or media owners strengthened self-regulation? Or have they weakened it? These questions need honest answers.

And let’s be mindful of the consequences. If we don’t, anonymous bureaucrats will soon impose regulation by statute. And that will only impede commercial free speech.

Paritosh Joshi was until recently CEO of Star CJ Network. He is a member of the Consumer Complaints Council of the Advertising Standards Council of India.

Comments are welcome at otherviews@livemint.com

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