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Two events, both in the course of the last week, turned the spotlight on advertising self-regulation, and by implication, the Advertising Standards Council of India (ascionline.in).

On May 25, ASCI updated the Code For Self-Regulation Of Advertising In India, more commonly called the ASCI Code, to cover “gender identity, sexual orientation, body type, age or physical and mental conditions in advertising depictions, a move aimed at making advertising more inclusive”. On June 2, an advertisement for a brand of deodorants caused a huge uproar on social media for its egregiously disgusting storyline, which seemed to actively promote rape culture. The matter soon came to the attention of ASCI and less than 12 hours after the brouhaha first erupted, it issued instructions to the advertiser and the broadcast media to immediately stop airing the offending execution. In doing so, ASCI deployed a rarely used provision available under the code: SPISuspend Pending Investigation.

The strange concatenation of these two events — one intended to advance self-regulation into areas which demanded attention but had not found explicit mention in the code, the other revealing the hideous underbelly of advertising in disgustingly unflattering light — should give every marketing communications professional in this country pause. To think long and hard about why we are here, and what we must do, individually and as a professional collective, to truly embrace self-regulation.

ASCI routinely faces criticism on a single point. That its complaint and adjudication process is so protracted that, inevitably, it shuts the stable doors long after the horse has bolted. The events of June 3 are as strong a repudiation of this chronic grumble as any but it is important to add a caution.

The SPI provision is designed to be used in what the law would describe as ‘rarest of the rare’ cases. It is not, and should never become, the primary tool in the self-regulatory arsenal. Indeed, it would do great disservice to the profession if it were to be so deployed. We shall return to this theme, momentarily.

ASCI has also been in critics’ crosshairs for appearing to be passive, even as issues of inclusivity and diversity have begun to occupy positions of prominence in public discourse. The ASCI code, around for over 30 years since it was adopted, has been a dynamic document, addressing areas of concern as they emerged over time. Today, the core of four chapters on Truthfulness, Decency, Prohibition of Harmful Products and Fairness in Competition has been supplemented by several guidelines for category-specific advertising. Automotive vehicle advertising is addressed, as is advertising of food products, brand extensions and education. Each of these extensions has resulted from a meticulous, if time consuming, process of gathering inputs from all stakeholders, then progressively distilling it into principles which, without exception, place the consumer at the very pinnacle of primacy, and ensure that she will be proactively guarded against mischief and misrepresentation.

Exactly such a process, only with even greater vigour and rigour, went behind the new work on inclusion and diversity. It may not be readily apparent to marketing communications professionals that ASCI was not established under a statute but was the result of a voluntary initiative by prescient leaders of the fraternity. While it has since been endorsed, even incorporated, into statute, and its decisions and rulings are treated as essentially pari passu with judicial rulings, it was not an enactment by statute. It is, in other words, a self-regulatory institution, adjunct to but independent of the judicial arm of the state. The bit which seems to get lost is this passage from the Preamble to the Code, titled “Responsibility for the observance of the code”.

“The responsibility for the observance of this Code for Self-Regulation in Advertising lies with all who commission, create, place or publish any advertisement or assist in the creation or publishing of any advertisement”.

ASCI was not, and should never become, an enforcer or policeman. Such behaviour would infantilise professionals who work in different arms of this large value-chain. It actually acknowledges them as discerning, discriminating, empathetic and, above all, honest adults, who can be trusted to do the right thing, because it is the right thing to do. A coercive self-regulator is an oxymoron. If I am a responsible member of the fraternity, I regulate what I do myself. I shouldn’t need a constable to constantly peer over my shoulder and rap me on my knuckles if I flouted the Code.

Which brings us back to why the SPI provision should always remain the last, and least used, tool in ASCI’s arsenal. The Layerr Shot campaign, which so correctly incensed every right minded individual, had to pass through all sorts of hoops before it aired on a television channel. A client commissioned a new campaign. A creative agency presented a storyboard. The client put this execution through an internal approval process. A production house was commissioned to produce the ad. A media agency recommended a media plan, then proceeded to dispatch copies of the ad to a number of broadcast outlets. These broadcasters put it through their internal S&P (standards and practices) system, to ensure that it did not fall foul of internal guidelines or statutory requirements.

And after jumping through all these hoops, the ad ran on some channel. Every single individual through this arduous journey was, is, supposed to be a component of the self-regulatory process. This was not an individual failure; it implicates a hundred different professionals in a dozen different organisations. SPI can and should only be deployed if all these checkpoints and guardrails fail to do what they were meant to.

The ASCI code is an articulation of the conscience of the marketing communications profession. It would harm its cause irreparably if it were to morph into just another piece of coercive, statutory muscle.

(The writer is a media professional. The Views expressed are personal)