Key insights on who should control advertising

Wednesday, 27 March 2013 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

  • A CIM-SLIM partnership to host a groundbreaking forum on marketing communications brought industry leaders and the marketing fraternity together for a vibrant discussion on advertising regulation


By Dharisha Bastians

A few years ago, a leading carbonated drink brand ran an advertising campaign portraying fictitious scenes of a populace that had ceased eating after truck after truck of the fizzy beverage went missing. Some advertisements featured images of persons attired in white to portray the grief felt by the loss of their favourite drink.

The campaign was creative, funny and catchy. But what if an advertising ‘regulator’ were to find the campaign’s selling point to be fundamentally false? How do marketers draw the lines between creative hyperbole and blatant falsehood? And will regulation result in completely stifling advertising creativity? How important is it for marketers to ensure they do not mislead consumers by falsifying claims? What laws currently govern marketing communications? How far is State intervention necessary?

These were some of the many posers at a groundbreaking forum organised in collaboration between two leading marketing institutes in the island, the Sri Lanka Institute of Marketing and the Chartered Institute of Marketing (Sri Lanka Region).

Entitled ‘Who Should Control Advertising?’ the joint forum drew leading marketing professionals who made thought-provoking presentations and engaged in a vibrant panel discussion before a packed audience from the marketing and advertising industries at the King’s Court of the Cinnamon Lakeside on 4 March. The event marked the first time the two institutes collaborated as hosts, in a bid to provide a platform for Sri Lanka’s marketing fraternity to safeguard its own interests and also the interests of the consumer.

Master of Ceremonies for the evening and Marketing Guru Mohammed Adamaly who introduced the forum said the business wave surging through Asia had reached Sri Lanka, bringing marketing communications to the forefront, together with all its controversy.

“The invasion of new brands and products and services bring with it the bludgeoning from advertisements and marketing promotions. These bring with them a unique set of challenges on ethical, moral and even legal fronts, in terms of unfair trade practices,” Adamaly said. He said under the circumstances, the pioneering forum sought to be provocative, educational and even reformist in the current marketing and advertising context.

Perspective of the consumer

Making the first presentation at the forum, Development Consultant and Commissioner/Chairman of the Sri Lanka Inventors Commission Deepal Sooriyarachchi was tasked with presenting from the perspective of the consumer. Sooriyarachchi said that it was important for marketers to remember that they had intrinsic permission to ‘break in’ to people’s consciousness, even though it was not expressly given. “We have a great responsibility therefore as marketers to remember that when we communicate we do not only reach our target consumer, but a host of others as well,” Sooriyarachchi said.

According to Sooriyarachchi, if marketers and advertisers do not begin to self-regulate it will be left to various authorities to decide which material is permissible. Such a situation would adversely impact marketing communications and creativity in advertising, he explained.

When it comes to advertising, Sooriyarachchi said, it was important to understand the cultural climate in which companies do business. “Colombo is not Sri Lanka. Marketers must be sensitive to cultural norms in societies in which they function,” he said. Trust was the key factor between marketer and consumer, Sooriyarachchi explained. He said it was easy in an age of increased competition to lapse into unethical practices to get the best possible exposure for a product.

“But there are true CSR issues at stake here, that marketers must think about,” Sooriyarachchi said, explaining that for instance the time was right to begin educating children on how to handle sponsored messaging.

He explained that since marketing was about wider society perspective, marketers needed to learn how to handle the opportunities they are granted to reach the consumer with restraint and responsibility.

“Unless we want to someday have to add the caveat to every commercial, ‘even though this is an advertisement you can believe it,’ self-regulation is necessary,” Sooriyarachchi emphasised.

Basics of advertising regulation

Marketing Director for Unilever Sri Lanka Asanga Ranasinghe said the basics of advertising regulation were four-fold. Advertising, he said, had to be legal, had to be decent and culturally sensitive, had to be honest and truthful.

Making a presentation from the Fast-Moving-Consumer-Goods (FMCG) perspective Ranasinghe said any regulatory code, whether by a Government body or an independent regulator, must be based on those four key areas.  Providing insight into Unilever strategies to tackle the issue of ethical marketing, Ranasinghe explained that the company self-regulates when it comes to marketing.

“Unilever works on four basic principles, building trust with the consumer, responsibility in terms of being able to defend what we communicate, the belief that the consumer has the right to know everything about the product and the fact communication is an integrated process that involves not only direct but indirect and unconventional types of marketing.  “We believe that brands are built in the minds of consumers. Every attempt to change behaviour and educate consumers must be based on mutual trust between brand-owner and consumer,” he explained.

“That trust is born of responsibility, and the ability to defend what is communicated to the consumer with hard facts. It is the understanding that your brands are owned as much by the consumer as much as the brand owner,” Ranasinghe said.

Certain global brands make certain ethical marketing choices of their own volition, according to Ranasinghe. He highlighted Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ campaign and the fact that some companies make conscious choices to avoid using children of a certain age in their marketing promotions.

State sector regulation

Chairman, Power House Limited, TV/FM Derana/Ada Derana Laksiri Wickremage, fears that while regulation is important, allowing State sector regulation of advertising will be the beginning of a bigger problem.

He says that while Government guidelines are important to some functional aspects of advertising such as nutritional information and false medical claims, interference with the emotional aspects of marketing would sound a death knell for marketing communications.

“If regulators kill creativity, they ultimately kill advertising agencies. That kills brands and ultimately, it will kill the economy. So where do you draw the red line?” Wickremage queried.  Wickremage questioned whether there were enough officials on Government regulatory bodies who understood brands, marketing and communications well enough to regulate effectively and in a way that did not adversely impact the industry.  “The consumption experience is fulfilled by the emotional aspects of advertising,” Wickremage explained. He said would-be regulators needed to be able to recognise and uphold this fundamental marketing premise.

Self regulation

Leo Burnett Solutions Inc. Ranil De Silva is a strong advocate for self regulation. He says all marketing communication must be derived from truth and it is therefore incumbent upon marketers to be truthful. De Silva said that as both a creative person and a former regulator, he understood the jurisdiction that needed to be exercised. “We need to give licence to creativity; we need to understand where the lines must be drawn,” he explained.

According to De Silva, the self-regulatory regime had already been discussed and a final draft of the regulatory code was ready even though it had never got to the implementation stage.

“It’s lying in someone’s drawer or computer. All we need to do is take it out and dust it and find a way to put it into practice,” he explained.







Panel discussion

Following the presentations by market leaders who took various perspectives on the issues under discussion, the SLIM-CIM Forum also hosted a vibrant panel discussion where the five presenters engaged in discussions on how to balance marketing communications fundamentals with the need to introduce new regulations and policies to ensure credibility and an adherence to ethical standards.

Moderated by Ceylon Biscuits Ltd. CEO Imal Fonseka, the panel discussed the mandate and methodology of any advertising regulatory body that might be established. Panellists stressed the need to ensure any regulatory body included marketing professionals and industry experts that understood that time was critical to any approval process.

Dr. Ananda Jayalal, Director Environmental and Occupational Health and Food Safety, Ministry of Health, said that according to current Government protocols in place with the Food Advisory Committee, if the process was in motion, the approval period would take up to 60 days.

Most marketers and advertising professionals on the panel found this time frame to be wholly unacceptable from a marketing perspective. The panel agreed that the time frame had to be competitive, confidentiality was integral as was the speed to market if any regulatory body was to review advertising before it reached the market.

Asked about the advertising self-regulation draft he spoke of in his presentation, Ranil de Silva explained that the policy never went through because there was a lack of funding and no one body prepared to take up management of the policy.

“We have to get stakeholders together, get collaboration from the Media Ministry, the IAA and industry professionals and find a way to manage the process,” De Silva said.

He said that while a dearth of Government resources was an issue, it must be remembered that the overall intent of advertising regulation was the protection of the consumer. “The Government has a responsibility in this regard. We know the crisis that arose in the financial services industry because people didn’t know the difference between fixed deposits and investments,” De Silva stressed.

De Silva said setting up the regulatory authority was also necessary because advertising agencies were essentially flying blind when it came to a regulatory code.

“At the moment, agencies and creative people do not quite know what is permissible,” he said.

But Laksiri Wickremage, who repeatedly cautions against too much State intervention in the marketing process, said that it was essentially the role of marketing professionals to take charge of the regulatory process.

“The State cannot do this. And before there is doom it has to happen. The intentions of regulations are pure, but it is also important to refrain from insulting the intelligence of the consumer,” he said.

According to Wickremage, what the marketing industry needs is for the Government to partner the regulation process, but it has to be with the industry taking the lead.

Dr. Jayalal highlighted the importance of regulation but said it must be the industry that lobbies for regulatory policy and protocol. “Things are getting bad,” he said in reference to false claims when it came to marketing. Dr. Jayalal said that the answer to a letter from the Food Advisory Committee about false claims in an advertisement featuring a particular cricketer was to change the cricketer in the commercial.  “The need for regulation is something everyone agrees on. But the fact is that the Government machinery works slowly. So a 60-day period could actually be much more, in practice. It is up to the industry to get this changed – these laws are changed by the people’s representatives, in Parliament – you are the people who send them there,” Dr. Jayalal quipped.

Interjecting at this juncture, Ranil de Silva said that advertising self-regulation did not involve time consuming pre-approval. He said the regulation involved guidelines for marketers and advertisers with non-adherence meaning that penalties were imposed.

Asanga Ranasinghe said that at Unilever Sri Lanka did some of its marketing and advertising self-regulation in house. He said that when it came to making defensible claims in its marketing promotions, Unilever believed strongly in early engagement with claim supervisory authorities. “We work closely with the Food Advisory Committee to develop claim support for promotions,” Ranasinghe explained.

He said that FAC guidelines were essentially that generic claims were allowed. “Our experience is that technical claims we make about our products must be defendable ones. So we enter the process early, because workarounds must be found. That way we can go to market faster,” Ranasinghe explained from the Unilever experience.

Dr. Jayalal agreed with this assessment. He said that pre-approval was not necessary when it came to advertising since regulations already in place were not difficult to follow. “It’s an essentially simple thing. Don’t make false claims,” he said.

Wickremage agreed that Government regulations were necessary and needed to be paid heed to by companies seeking to promote their products because as marketers were not authorities on nutrition and other scientific areas.

But he reemphasised the dangers of allowing too much State intervention to the creative process.  “The danger is that one day the cultural police will also come. Then our coloured worlds will be rendered black and white. So it’s critical that advertisers self-regulate when it comes to the emotional, creative aspects of marketing,” Wickremage explained.

De Silva explained that the only involvement of the State in any self-regulatory mechanism would be assistance to formulate and draft the guidelines. He said the delay with the execution of the self-regulatory mechanism was the fact that there was no consensus on who should run the secretariat.  Deepal Sooriyarachchi said that it was imperative for marketers to take action instead of waiting for others to take the lead on regulatory issues. He said the regulatory framework had already been decided on many times over and all that was needed for a fresh version to be implemented.

Ranasinghe closed the panel discussion saying that he hoped the SLIM-CIM forum would not be the last effort to making the regulatory issue an industry concern and part of the discourse.

“One thing is very clear, we have a huge responsibility as marketers; the consumer must get the best deal. We have to keep creativity and excitement alive in the field,” he concluded.