The Pandemic Of Misleading Ads?

Ads preying on consumers’ virus-related fears are a concern

With astonishing creativity and innovativeness, advertising has always found new ways to have messages hit home and influence society. While most advertisers do wish to be honest, there are some who take unfair advantage of consumer vulnerabilities to push claims that fall short of substantiation. We all saw such instances during the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of these claims were around prevention or cures for Covid, seeking to tap into consumers’ fear of contracting the dreaded virus.

Confined to their homes and denied access to print media, consumers became heavily dependent on smartphones and the television – especially OTT platforms and digital media – as their primary sources of information. This increase in digital content consumption – in fact, it would be accurate to say that we led almost fully digital lives – led also to a massive rise in exposure to advertisements. This is especially true of digital advertising, which offered more eyeballs to brands and opened new avenues for marketers. This also amplified viewers’ exposure to advertising. Unfortunately, there were a lot of misleading advertisements peppering the screens

Google alone is said to have removed 3 billion misleading advertisements across the world in 2020, while many leading brands faced legal action because of false claims. Though misleading advertising has existed for decades, it became more common during the pandemic. In response, ministries and regulatory bodies issued guidelines around COVID-related marketing. As the conscience keeper of the advertising industry and the flagship of self-regulation, the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) also issued specific guidelines in October 2020 keeping consumer interest center stage.

Let’s not forget that such advertising claims are delivered via multiple routes now – from traditional to new-age, like influencer handles. This makes monitoring of such messages tougher, but also vital.

So, soon after the pandemic hit, ASCI received a directive from the Ministry of AYUSH asking it to identify advertisements that violated its advisory dated April 1, 2020. Accordingly, ASCI escalated 237 objectionable advertisements to the ministry. While 164 were modified after ASCI contacted the marketers, 73 COVID-related advertisements needed further investigation and action by the ministry due to non-compliance with ASCI’s rulings against them.

In addition to this, ASCI picked up advertisements from various sectors that promised COVID-related benefits. In all, 332 COVID-related advertisements were identified through consumer complaints as well as ASCI’s own monitoring systems. However, claims of only 12 could be substantiated by the marketers.

Such a high ratio margin of misleading claims can have a remarkably negative impact on consumer trust – a regression that could continue well beyond the pandemic.

Advertising has the power to impact public sentiment and society materially. There is a huge responsibility on the shoulders of the entire advertising and media ecosystem. They must adopt a mindful approach, especially during tough times like a pandemic. Consumers seek authentic information and often depend on branded products to keep themselves and their loved ones safe. This brand power, therefore, must always be wielded conscientiously.

ASCI, meanwhile, will continue its robust monitoring of COVID-related advertising claims.

The author is Manisha Kapoor, Secretary-General, ASCI

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