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Six issues ASCI should consider while framing advertising guidelines for edtech

While edtech start-ups are working with the ASCI to come up with a code for advertising, here are some important issues to keep in mind.

EdTech start-ups part of the recently formed India EdTech Consortium (IEC) such as Byju’s, Unacademy, and upGrad are working with the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) to come up with a code for advertising and marketing, Economic Times reported on Monday.

“We do keep reviewing our guidelines from time to time to keep pace with emerging consumer concerns. For all new guidelines, we undertake extensive stakeholder consultations with the government, industry bodies, or members, sector experts as well as representatives of consumer organisations.” – Manisha Kapoor, secretary general of ASCI, told ET

Here are some of the key issues that we think ASCI should address in its guidelines.

Issues that should be addressed

1. Clarity on the financial component: In an advisory issued by the government in December 2021, the Ministry of Education pointed out that “some ed-tech companies are luring parents in the garb of offering free services and getting the Electronic Fund Transfer (EFT) mandate signed or activating the auto-debit feature, especially targeting the vulnerable families.” Before that, MP Karti Chidambaram raised this issue in the parliament saying that EdTech companies are “engaging in predatory marketing practices where they prey upon the aspirational poorer people who want to give their children a better education […] acting like loan sharks.”  Hundreds of complaints have been filed against Byju’s by customers who were misled by its sales team into taking loans to afford their charges, according to a BBC report from December 2021.

“Deliberate miscommunication about the loan and trial period triggered a default crisis. Parents have turned defaulters, unable to stop payments towards unwanted loans.” – The Ken

MediaNama’s Recommendation: Any kind of financial obligation that a customer faces or will face in the future must be clearly communicated in a transparent and easy-to-understand manner at the outset. The government’s advisory also recommends that auto-debit must be disabled or that parental consent must be enabled for in-app purchases.

2. Aggressive sales tactics:  In many instances, the company shamed parents into enrolling their children but did not provide the services the sales team advertised, and refused to refund customers, the BBC report alleged. Rest of the World reported that seven current and former employees at Byju’s told the publications that the company “uses hard-sell tactics, coupled with extensive data that it collects on its users, to encourage low-income parents to sign up and keep paying, even if the products are beyond their means.”

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“Sales associates say they were asked to find leads anywhere and everywhere. Buying a cup of chai from your local chai stall? Ask the seller if he has children and if he wants them to have a better education — and a better life — by signing up for Byju’s.” – Rest of the World

MediaNama’s Recommendation:  Consent should be explicit, and not obtained through practices like pre-ticked checkboxes. At no point, should salesmen coerce customers into signing up for a particular service or product by employing tactics like making the children look bad in front of their parents by intentionally posing difficult questions. EdTech companies should also clearly lay out what the customers will get and provide invoices for the same.

3. Credibility and authenticity of courses: Last week, the University Grants Commission (UGC) and the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), two of the top governing bodies of higher education, both issued notices ordering higher educational institutions to stop offering online diplomas and degrees in partnership with EdTech companies because this is in violation of UGC Guidelines. UGC and AICTE both observed that some EdTech companies are giving advertisements in newspapers, social media, television etc. that they are offering degree and diploma programmes in open-distance learning and online modes in association with institutions recognised by them.

Recommendation: ASCs’z existing guidelines for educational institutes: “The advertisement shall not state or lead the public to believe that an institution or course or program is official, recognized, authorized, accredited, approved, registered, affiliated, endorsed or has a legally defined situation unless the advertiser can substantiate with evidence,” can be adopted for EdTech companies as well. In cases where there is legally allowed affiliation, EdTech companies should clearly specify the role played by an educational institution in designing a course and should follow ASCI guidelines on font size and display details criteria.

Dear Reader, please feel free to leave a comment with what YOU think should be the factors that the ASCI should consider while framing advertising guidelines for edtech

4. Unsubstantiated claims and guarantees: In 2018, ASCI criticised Byju’s for substantiated claims like one crore students are learning from Byju’s, it has a 600 member strong R&D team involved in creating the best learning program for students, 93% of parents reported an overall increase in their children’s grades after using BYJU’s, and 90% students renew their Byju’s course year on year and 51 minutes spent on the app on an average by a student every day. More recently, in a meeting between IEC and the Ministry of Education, officials from the ministry specifically pointed out that advertisements promising jobs or any such outcomes should not be allowed, Economic Times reported.

MediaNama’s Recommendation: ASCI’s existing guidelines that say advertisements should not lead the public to believe that enrolment in a course will lead to a job, admission to institutions, increase in salary can be adopted. EdTech companies should also carry a disclaimer saying “past record is no guarantee of future job prospects” in the font size specified by ASCI. Furthermore, testimonials must only be from students who actually participated in the concerned course.

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5. Going after critics: MP Karti Chidambaram in the parliament alleged that EdTech companies are so powerful that they are bringing down complaints raised by activists on social media platforms with regards to the conduct of these companies. Chidambaram was possibly referring to the incident that took place in July 2020 where posts and accounts critical of Byju’s were taken down. In another instance, the false marketing of WhiteHat Jr, which was acquired by Byju’s last year, was highlighted by activist Pradeep Poonia who claimed the company made false claims about Byju’s students getting lucrative jobs, but the company sued Poonia for the same and filed a similar lawsuit against another critic Aniruddha Malpani.

“Many people like Nidhi Bahuguna, Aniruddha Malpani, and Pradeep Poonia have tried to bring out the darker side of these companies through social media posts. Nidhi Bahuguna on her Twitter account shared a similar case where her domestic help was mis-sold a Byju’s programme and a loan got sanctioned without her knowing about it.” – Karti Chidambaram told ET

MediaNama’s Recommendation: Activists that point out legitimate malpractices of EdTech companies should be approached for feedback rather than sued. ASCI should ask the companies to create a mechanism for complaints on marketing and advertising.

6. Accounting for the upcoming Data Protection Bill: The latest draft of the Data Protection Bill contains provisions restricting companies from “profiling, tracking, behaviour monitoring, or targeted advertising for children.” While educational institutes are seeking exemption from this provision, this has still not been incorporated in the Bill or the JPC report and hence EdTech companies must keep this provision in mind when forming their code on advertising.

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