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How The Ad Landscape Is Headed For A Change With New Norms on Comparative Advertising


By Misbaah Mansuri

In a first, the Ministry of Consumer Affairs decided to unveil a complete code of conduct for advertisers and agencies, a move designed to curb unfair practices and misleading claims. Interestingly, the planned code will detail penalties for advertisers and their agencies and publishers, if misleading advertising and false claims are found. The law was enforced on Monday, July 20, 2020. In a fresh development, the consumer affairs ministry has also prepared the guidelines with regards to comparative advertising that are expected to be notified in a month.

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According to the guidelines, any comparative advertisement, which is not factual, inaccurate and can’t substantiate the claims made by any company, would be treated as misleading advertisements. Similarly, all endorsers including celebrities would need to take care that descriptions, claims and comparisons that they endorse are capable of substantiation. Industry watchers weigh in how the ad landscape is headed for a change.

Dheeraj Sinha, Managing Director & Chief Strategy Officer, South Asia, Leo Burnett opines that the implementation of the guidelines will encourage good marketing practices that go beyond gimmicks. “These are the days of transparency and authenticity. The consumer of today is looking at the details of any claim being made and making judicious choices. I think it’s beneficial for brands to not only live up to the guidelines laid down by the government but better it if possible. Because ultimately in the court of the consumer, only authenticity and transparency will win. To my mind, brands holding themselves up to these principles is good marketing. Either way, days of creating meaningless acronyms and artificial points of differentiation are long gone. Today’s consumers want to know how you are more relevant to them than, how you are differentiated from your competition,” he observes.

As we know it, over the years, a plethora of brands has been built on comparative advertising. Notable marketing warfare instances include the cola wars of the 1990s (Coca Cola vs. Pepsi), Nestle versus Cadbury, Complan vs Horlicks, among others.

According to Raghu Bhat, Founder, Scarecrow M&C Saatchi, these guidelines can clamp down on opportunistic advertising practices. However, Bhat feels that there will be a lot of ambiguity in interpreting the guidelines. “Suppose we have a product claim based on a pain point but it stops short of making a direct claim. For example, a cooking oil ad that says – Work stress can age the heart. So switch to XYZ oil that keeps your heart healthy. Since this is suitably vague, I don’t know the guidelines will be applied. Yes, it will make a brand think twice before resorting to outright falsehood but I think very few brands do that, in any case,” he opines. One tangible change that Bhat sees happening is that celebrities might hesitate to be part of spurious campaigns. “Even today, there are many quick-fix herbal and pharma products being sold using a celebrity. If this stops, it’ll do public health a lot of good,” he remarks. Moreover, Bhat points out that the real challenge for agencies will be to make the creative leap without distorting the truth as many brand idea articulations are exaggerated versions of reality.

Meanwhile Harish Bijoor, Brand-strategy Expert & Founder, Harish Bijoor Consults Inc asserts, “Due diligence is the key operative phrase here. Brand endorsers will need to employ a good degree of it in their commercial dealings. Expect this to be the new normal.” 

According to the broad draft guidelines, all advertisements would be considered valid, if these contain truthful and honest representations, don’t mislead consumers by exaggerating the capability or performance or service of the product and the claims made in advertisements are backed by scientific opinion.

Mithila Saraf of Famous Innovations feels that the guidelines are definitely a step in the right direction. “Today’s emerging generation of consumers questions and critiques brands a lot more than their predecessors. Loyalty is eroding every day and expectations are getting higher and higher, in a general sentiment of cynicism about the sincerity of large companies. These guidelines are the right step in this environment and we hope it will be one of many that ushers in a new, responsible, purposive and conscious era of advertising. These and many other changes are critical if we want to continue to be relevant to the evolving consumer,” she says. 

Furthermore, the proposed norms say that advertisements containing comparisons with other manufacturers, suppliers, producers or with other products, would be permitted only if the features of the competitor’s product is compared to the features of advertisement of other similar products. 

Credit: Exchange4media

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