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Will ASCI Be Able To Monitor Online Ads In India?

The Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) will be screening online and radio advertisements for misleading claims in pilot projects, reports Business Standard.

ASCI officials claim that the number of complaints received in education and healthcare for misleading claims are high and companies or brands might continue with the misleading claims on their website, which makes monitoring of ads online even more important. It’s not clear when the pilot projects end and whether ASCI will have a new set of framework for screening online ads.

Currently, the set of framework for screening ads for all mediums is applicable for online advertisements as well, however, the outcome of these pilot projects would lead to tighter screening of online ads. The National Advertising Monitoring Service (NAMS) monitors about 1500 TV Commercial and 45000 Print advertisements in a month. Advertisements are governed by various laws of the Government of India, including

– Drugs and Magic Remedies Act, 1954
– Cable Television Network Act
– Patents Act, 1970
– Drugs and Cosmetics Act, 1940
– Emblems and Names Act, 1950
– Trademarks Act, 1999
– Copyright Act, 1957
– Indecent Representation of Women Act, 1986
– Prasar Bharti Act, 1990

Difficulty in screening online ads

In April 2013, ASCI introduced a new initiative called “Suspension Pending Investigation” (SPI), as per which, advertisements which are seen as in serious breach of ASCI’s code, either being gravely obscene, indecent, vulgar or against public interest will now be required to be withdrawn immediately pending decision of its Consumer Complaint Council (CCC). The SPI being independent of media of delivery, can be assumed to include digital.

Screening of digital ads is not unwarranted: there have been instances where Multi-level marketing firms have managed to (allegedly) dupe people, using the Internet to advertise: it’s worth reading this MoneyLife report on SpeakAsia.

Screening online ads, though, is a complex endeavor:

– Availability of ads for screening: You’re taking about millions of ads to be screened here. This is not broadcast, and online adverts are targeted and personalised, and what you see is not what I would see. Besides, creating an online ad is extremely easy, as compared to a print, TV or radio ad.
– Banning: Even if ASCI creates a ban on a certain ad, and ban the account that published the ad, getting a new account and re-publishing the ad is not that difficult.
– Jurisdiction issues: Ad networks, agencies and publishers are global, and as a user in India, I can view a site set up anywhere in the world, by any company in the world, running ads from any company in the world.

Our verdict: There is no way the ASCI will be able to ban online advertisements, except those from Indian agencies and/or advertisers. Holding a publisher accountable would not be fair since publishers deploying ad networks often have little or no control over the advertisements. Holding ad networks accountable might, perhaps, be the only way of addressing this issue.

Last year, the Indian government began its online advertisement pilot via  Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity (DAVP). The DAVP advertises on publications after empanelling them, and once empaneled, publications will see a regular inflow of advertising. It’s not clear whether the pilot project has been ended.

(with inputs from Nikhil Pahwa)

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