Surrogate ads or wilful hoodwinking

It is raining liquor ads on IPL. Openly. Brazenly. Blatantly. And no one seems to be bothered. Not the government. Not ASCI. Not the broadcaster. Nor civil society in general. 

Published: 26th May 2018 11:06 PM  |   Last Updated: 27th May 2018 10:19 AM   |  A+A-

Express News Service

It is raining liquor ads on IPL. Openly. Brazenly. Blatantly. And no one seems to be bothered. Not the government. Not ASCI. Not the broadcaster. Nor civil society in general. There are ads on air for Royal Challenge, Royal Stag, Black & White, Signature and Chivas Regal.

All liquor ads for sure, but masquerading as completely different products, mostly non-existent. Let us first look at Royal Challenge. Despite all his holier-than-thou positioning versus Pepsi, India’s cricket captain Virat Kohli endorses the Royal Challenge ‘sports drink’. I tried buying the drink at my local grocer’s. It wasn’t available. I tried the local supermarket. It wasn’t available.

I tried the internet. It wasn’t available. The fact of the matter is that the only drink available from Royal Challenge is of the tipsy kind, not the sporty kind. Sure, it must exist somewhere perhaps, but Royal Challenge sports drink is surely not a mass product justifying advertising on the IPL where every 10 second ad-spot costs a whopping Rs. 9.5 lakhs per 10 seconds. Virat Kohli is therefore endorsing almost a ghost product which ‘passes off’ as a surrogate for a liquor brand. Not very proper, is it Mr. Kohli?

Black & White is pushing ‘Gettogethers’, whatever they mean or stand for. Signature is running advertising selling ‘Start-ups’! There is Ranveer Singh merrily peddling Seagram’s Royal Stag Mega Music CDs. And even a global brand like Chivas does not hesitate to cheat in India. On offer from Chivas Studio are Music CDs I could find at no music store or music site. There was of course a token presence on Amazon. But that was all. 

Liquor advertising has always been a touchy subject in this country. Till the 1990s, tobacco and liquor could be freely advertised. Then the government clamped down on both categories. The Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995, Rule 7(2)(viii) clearly prohibited the direct or indirect promotion and advertisement of “cigarettes, tobacco products, wine, alcohol, liquor or other intoxicants” where in the advertisements were not to use particular colors and layout or presentations associated with the prohibited products. 

In all of the ads referred above, exact logos and styles of the alcohol brands are being used as is. There is no attempt to hide. Or pretend .Or alter. The Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) should have long intervened but it has preferred to turn a Nelson’s eye.When the initial guidelines for surrogate advertising were framed, the stated requirement was that the surrogate product should have enough commercial value to carry, and justify, the cost of advertising. That led to Kingfisher actually launching a serious business in mineral water to justify its surrogate. The launch of Kingfisher Airlines was dictated by the same motivations. Even the Kingfisher calendar was born out of the same necessity. There were serious attempts to comply with the guidelines and not just advertise ghost products as surrogates. 

In line with this thinking, Wills actually created a life style apparel brand. Royal Challenge launched an IPL team under a similar name, Royal Challengers Bangalore. That was a close call since the matter of similarity between Royal Challenge and Royal Challengers was taken up in multiple courts. Royal Challenge won the court cases on the technicality that Challenge and Challengers were two different words and not a ‘pass off’. 

Over the years, liquor brands have started to flout the guidelines with impunity. There is not even an attempt sometimes to ‘sell’ a product. Hence, obscure surrogates like ‘Gettogethers’ and ‘Start-ups’. Though they are not on air right now, ads for Johnny Walker had no surrogate, just the global line, ‘Keep Walking’. 

If there is any one to blame for this open defiance by the liquor brands, it is the lack of vigil by ASCI, the watchdog body. In typical bureaucratic style, ASCI waits for a consumer complaint to be lodged. It then goes through a torturous enquiry process running over weeks, even months. By that time the errant brand has already finished running its campaign and cocks a snook at ASCI, at best providing an apology or agreeing to withdraw the campaign. 

The government too is to blame for letting ghost products run as surrogates. There is no one any longer monitoring volumes and value of the surrogates. No one is watching to see whether these surrogates even exist. Liquor advertising is continuing to proliferate. The liquor lobby has the money and the might. And the mindset to keep side-stepping the law and governmental guidelines. It is up to the government to decide whether they have to be allowed a free-hand in dodging the law of the land. Unashamedly, and unabashedly.The author is an advertising veteran, and a past member of the ASCI governing body.

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