Efforts to increase regulations on advertising and also pulling out some ads from the market saw all the forces in the marketing fraternity come together in a show of strength to counter any adverse impact on their profession. The two powerful marketing bodies – the Sri Lanka chapter of the UK-based Chartered Institute of Management [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Regulating advertising


Efforts to increase regulations on advertising and also pulling out some ads from the market saw all the forces in the marketing fraternity come together in a show of strength to counter any adverse impact on their profession.

The two powerful marketing bodies – the Sri Lanka chapter of the UK-based Chartered Institute of Management (CIM) and Sri Lanka Institute of Marketing (SLIM) – came together on Monday to raise concerns over what they see as an intrusion into creativity and the people’s choice to decide what is right, and what is good for their consumption.

However what was woefully missing from a layperson’s perspective was the reason and the rationale for calling a panel discussion titled “Who should control advertising?” None of the four panellists – veteran marketer Deepal Sooriyarachchi, Asanga Ranasinghe (Unilever), Dr Ananda Jayalal (Secretary of the Food Advisory Committee -FAC) and Laksiri Wickramage (Derana TV/FM) group along with moderator Imal Fonseka gave any clues as to why the sudden excitement over advertising regulation (which has gone on for years). However in fairness to the panel, their brief may have not included this awareness raising. The compere too didn’t make it clear about what this excitement was all about though the FAC official referred to some ads being recently pulled out as they contravened the regulations.

Having announced a panel discussion to the public, this is a serious lacuna on the part of the professional marketing bodies which was also evident in an event some years ago; simply that the marketers in Sri Lanka don’t know how to market themselves! At a media launch of an advertising awards by SLIM, the event was delayed for more than an hour from the scheduled time with journalists and sponsors waiting patiently with the head table bare. When journalists complained, an organizer quickly came to the podium and said the SLIM office bearers were having a board meeting elsewhere and would come after that. Threats by journalists to walk out saw the meeting quickly start but again, there was no apology from SLIM officials who spoke.

Similarly Monday’s event was unclear as to what the issues were about over-regulation to the laypersons present in the audience (journalists included) which is the large consumer segment that the marketing fraternity is addressing and selling to. It was a missed opportunity to get their points across, effectively.

Having said that, there appears to be serious concerns (as one advertising personality told this newspaper on the sidelines of the discussion) in a gradual control on advertising.

Ads are subject to regulations under the Food Act with one such rule stating that, “No person shall label, package , treat, process, sell or advertise any food in a manner that is false, misleading, deceptive or likely to create an erroneous impression, regarding its character, value, quality , composition, merit or safety.” Likewise there are strict rules controlling health claims on labels of products, one of which drew the recent attention of the FAC and was pulled out. On Wednesday, two days after the ad discussion, the FAC issued a public notice titled ‘Labeling & Advertising of Food Products Containing DHA (Docosahexaenoic Acid)’ saying, “On the basis of the scientific information and having reviewed the opinion of the experts the FAC has decided not to allow for special claims, advertising and labeling with regard to the DHA whenever it is used as an ingredient in food products.”

While the regulations are clear in its intent of not misleading the consumers – particularly in food products and also drugs and cosmetics (which come under a separate regulation) – the bone of contention of the marketing fraternity is that state authorities involved in the ‘cleansing’ exercise are not conversant with modern day advertising and marketing trends and kill creativity in advertising. Another issue, which drew a chorus of (silent) protest from the audience of mostly marketers, was when the FAC official spoke of a minimum 60 days needs to approve an advertisement. Panelists raised concerns over this long, protracted time-frame and called for a quicker turn-around time which the FAC official, to be fair, agreed saying this period was not the best option.
Advertising is a powerful medium. It can make or break campaigns. It can stimulate, coerce, force, compel or indoctrinate consumers into buying a product. The power of advertising left in the hands of the wrong person could not only ruin a product but also endanger the population which is why regulation and controls are necessary particularly when products are marketed to an audience which doesn’t have a clue about medical benefits, health claims and the sort. In today’s world of wellness and demands on reducing stress, etc there is a huge market for products that would help consumers in the choices they make in leading a healthy lifestyle.
But that choice can also come through coercion and aggressive advertising to an unsuspecting consumer. The plethora of unethical ads claiming medical benefits in products over the years which has gone unregulated is sufficient examples as to the need for the marketer to be truthful and honest in claims made on packs. The demand for proper regulation of advertising products, particularly as consumerism grew in the post-war period, has increased particularly in food-related products like food supplements. Consumers often argue that the hidden facts are in very small print that, in a hurry – looking at a product on a shelf – a consumer doesn’t have enough time to make an informed choice.

However the panellists stressed the point that honest and truthful advertising has come to stay and more and more consumers are able to differentiate between a good and a bad product. There was also an urgency attached to the need for a self-regulated body like an Advertising Council made up of all stake-holders including the state to be set up that would monitor ads, ensure ethical advertising and that unsuspecting consumers are protected.

Such a self-regulated body, which should include consumer interests, is what the Sunday Times has campaigned for in the past. In this context, the efforts of the two professional bodies to come together to initiate moves in this regard must be commended, encouraged and supported.

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