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NEW DELHI : Any advertising in India that discriminates against or mocks any gender identity, sexual orientation, body shape, age or any kind of physical or mental condition, will now be considered in violation of the code set by the industry regulator, the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI). On Wednesday, the sector regulator said that it has updated its advertising code for greater inclusivity in all brand communications through ads.

The current ASCI code already required ads to not deride anyone on the basis of race, caste, creed, gender or nationality. However, the regulator said that new areas of possible discrimination or derision have now been included in Chapter 3 of the advertising code. The updated code now says that “no advertisement shall be permitted which “Derides any individual or groups on the basis of race, caste, color, religion, gender, body shape, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, physical or mental conditions or nationality."

A statement from the self-regulatory body said that as a future-facing organisation, ASCI works to ensure that its guidelines keep pace with the ever-evolving society. As consumers are becoming increasingly concerned about unfavourable depictions of certain sections of society, this change ensures that advertising too keeps pace with these rightful expectations.

ASCI CEO and general secretary Manisha Kapoor said while the clause always existed, it has now been broadened to include different types of potential issues. The additions have been done keeping in mind public discourse on them and how consumers are holding others accountable for such constructs.

Kapoor said that ads must be able to show all kinds of shapes and forms that actually exist but not in a mocking way. “Depictions are welcome, we would want more diversity and inclusion in advertising, but we don’t want them to be disrespectful. The idea is to not make people look caricature-ish and put them in advertisements just to mock them," she said. 

“The idea is to keep up with societal evolution since this is what consumers believe is important today and it’s important for advertisers to understand that and make sure that they are responsive to consumer expectations on how they should be depicted," added Kapoor. 

Communications strategy consultant Karthik Srinivasan said he feels that ASCI’s updated code is fairly comprehensive and sweeping on paper but its implications will only be understood when they are applied and contested and the decisions are made by ASCI on those complaints.

“For instance, associating sluggishness with a certain body shape happens often in advertisements for cooking oil or malt-based health drinks even though they do not deride the characters. Instead, they are being used to make a broader point about health, in a positive way. And no brand or agency worth its name would even dream of deriding on the basis of physical ailment," he said.

He added that as far as gender identity is concerned, there is a marked increase in the way the spectrum is depicted in Indian advertising and it’s good to see ASCI progressively adding this to the code.

With the change in the code, “ASCI hopes to ensure that advertising becomes more inclusive and sensitised to all sections of our country, and does not perpetuate certain portrayals that have no place in a progressive society", Kapoor said. The changes to the ASCI code were approved by the board recently.

ASCI seeks to ensure that all advertisements conform to its Code for Self-Regulation, which requires advertisements to be legal, decent, honest and truthful and not hazardous or harmful while observing fairness in competition. ASCI looks into complaints across media such as Print, TV, Radio, hoardings, SMS, Emailers, Internet / website, product packaging, brochures, promotional material and point of sale material. 

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