On July 26, 2021, the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) issued a  press release announcing its performance during the FY 2020-21, i.e., the year of COVID-19. The protection of consumer interest has always been the aim of ASCI and keeping up with this aim, it processed over 6149 complaints, with overall compliance of 97%. In a year marked by quarantines, lockdowns, Zoom meetings, and the general chaos of work-from-home, we are happy to report that ASCI lived up to the Country's expectations.

On April 01, 2020, to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the country, the Ministry of Ayurveda, Yoga & Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha, and Homoeopathy (AYUSH) of India issued a directive to the Secretary of ASCI with the request for reporting incidences of misleading advertisements/claims of AYUSH, including making of false claims. Following the directive, ASCI recently released that it escalated 237 objectionable ads to the Ministry of AYUSH. While 164 ads complied and modified the untrue claims, 73 COVID-19 related ads needed further investigation and action by the Ministry due to non-compliance.

Further, ASCI prevented several brands from exploiting consumer interest by apprehending 332 advertisements relating to paints, apparel, detergents, skincare, ACs, fans, water purifiers, plywood and laminates, supplements, and food – all of which promised COVID related benefits, out of which only 12 were able to substantiate the claims they made.

On October 20, 2020, ASCI issued an  Advisory to guide advertisers in the times of COVID-19, so that their advertisements meet the requirements of the ASCI Code's Chapter I. One of the pointers of the Advisory stated that advertisements avoid claiming destruction or removal of any virus other than the coronavirus to preserve ASCI code's clauses 1.4 ("Advertisements shall neither distort facts nor mislead consumers by means of implications and omissions....") and 1.5 ("Advertisements shall not be so framed as to abuse the trust of consumers or exploit their lack of experience and knowledge..."). In case advertisers chose to claim removal of any other virus in their advertisement, they were advised to include a disclaimer such as "Claim not applicable to coronavirus (COVID-19)" or a similar message with the disclaimer size and position as per the Disclaimer Guideline of ASCI.

In addition to taking COVID-appropriate measures, ASCI Consumer Complaints Council (CCC) also processed 1406 complaints in the education sector, 285 complaints against food and beverage advertisements, and 147 complaints related to personal care. In addition, 364 advertisements were found to be, prima facie, in violation of The Drugs and Magic Remedies Act.

Furthermore, in September 2020, ASCI collaborated with TAM to monitor 3,000 digital platforms, the possible effect of which resulted in 35% of the advertisements looked into by the CCC being from the digital medium. ASCI also processed 67 complaints related to online real money gaming from Jan-March 2021. It launched the Trust in Advertising report in partnership with Nielsen IQ and the Indian Society of Advertisers, and the 'Chup Na Baitho' (don't stay silent) awareness campaign for consumers, encouraging them to report objectionable claims in advertising. Finally, ASCI recently came up with detailed guidelines for Influencer Marketing (the details of which can be found in our Articles  here).

 Manisha Kapoor, Secretary-General, ASCI states, "In a period where consumer vulnerabilities were at an all-time high, many brands took unfair advantage of this, and tried to peddle their wares without establishing any robust evidence of their actual utility against the SARS COV-2 virus. ASCI has worked hard to weed out such advertisements by using very stringent standards of evidence. Brands that offer proven benefits to consumers have a genuine role in the pandemic, but unfortunately, most of the COVID-related advertising fell woefully short. Most advertisers were unable to prove that the products actually worked to help consumers in a real way as claimed in the ads." Needless to say, while the world was stuck balancing work-from-home and their kids' online classes, the good people at ASCI were working hard to protect the average Indian's consumer interest.

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