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Expert speak: Treading the fine line between creativity and flouting advertising rules

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Pranali Tawte
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In the quest for consumer attention, brands and agencies sometimes end up flouting advertising rules. With the help of marketing experts and ASCI, Social Samosa understands the objective behind this approach, its impact on brand trust, and its potential consequences. 

In the ever-evolving world of advertising, brands, and agencies are always experimenting and are constantly pushing boundaries in an effort to stand out from the competition and get more customers. This urge to stand out and leave a lasting impression has led to a rise in bold and unconventional advertising campaigns. 

However, as an industry, advertising operates within a framework of rules and regulations established by regulatory bodies and societal norms. While bending advertising rules can be viewed as a creative approach, breaking them raises ethical and legal concerns.

Brands that crossed the line

Ads that bend and break rules come and go. In the past year alone, there have been several instances that caught the industry's attention and got on regulation bodies' radar.

The year started with an international cereal brand SURREAL’s fake celebrity campaign. They used the names of famous individuals to promote their products. This sparked a buzz on social media, with some applauding the humor and creativity, while a few criticized it for taking an easy route.

Then to address the backlash on social media, Surreal saw a great opportunity to strike back with humour yet again. 

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With a similar approach, Sleepy Owl took it a step ahead by roping in celebrity doppelgangers.

SleepyOwl, too, got mixed reactions. The campaign received both praise for its creativity, and criticism for taking a shortcut. 

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According to Rutu Mody-Kamdar, the founder of Jigsaw Brand Consultants, brands often strive to be creative and innovative in order to grab the attention of consumers. This type of advertising generates mixed reactions, with some people disliking it, while others find it interesting. However, the important thing is that the majority of people end up noticing it, which is a significant achievement for the brand.

According to her, this kind of strategy can have a transient upswing for the brand. People may discuss the campaign - spreading awareness, both in positive and negative ways. However, she believes that most people will forget about it within a few days, and as a result, it won't have a lasting impact on the brand's equity.

She said, “Advertising today is too transient, too fast-paced, and too short-term to have any major lasting impact on trust or reputation. In this flash economy, everything and anything ends up getting pardoned and accepted as a passing blip.”

While a few brands resorted to bending rules, some took it too far and broke them.

The most recent example that the industry witnessed is upGrad. The EdTech platform upGrad shared a campaign featuring an AI-generated lookalike of Google CEO Sundar Pichai. This campaign raised questions on consent, whether upGrad obtained permission from the Google CEO himself before using his likeness and personal details in their campaign.

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Rohit Varma, Founder, Narrative, is not opposed to breaking rules, but he strongly opposes communication that deceives consumers or customers.

Talking about the upGrad’s campaign, he said, "The communication surely deceives people and once exposed people won’t trust the brand. One must be really careful when you are doing something which may or may not work in your favor. When it backfires, it really creates a problem for the brand.”

Risks of breaking advertising rules

While some may see breaking advertising rules as an opportunity to be innovative or unconventional, the risks associated with such actions cannot be ignored.

In today's interconnected world, news of advertising rule violations spreads quickly and consumers and experts often voice their concerns and discontent, which can harm the brand's image. Rebuilding this damaged reputation will require significant efforts and resources, which can further impact the brand's financial health and market position.

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Komal Lath, Founder, Tute Consult, believes that consumer trust is the foundation of any successful brand, and breaking advertising rules erodes that trust. 

She said, “In an era where transparency and authenticity are highly valued, consumers expect brands to uphold ethical standards. When a brand is exposed for rule-breaking, consumers may feel deceived and betrayed. The loss of trust can lead to a damaged relationship that is challenging to rebuild.”

In today's digital age, brands have the ability to measure consumer sentiments more accurately than ever before. Carrying out various surveys and questionnaires, social media listening, online review and ratings, analysis tools and more can help them understand what will work, what won’t, and what would backfire.

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According to Naresh Gupta, Co-Founder, Bang In The Middle, breaking advertising rules can have a significant impact on consumer trust and brand reputation. Gupta emphasizes that in highly competitive industries, negative sentiment generated by poor advertising can benefit competing brands by allowing them to gain consumer trust and market share without incurring additional costs.

Today brands measure sentiments and these ads generate massive negative sentiments. Poor advertising means that the brand will have a decay in recall and purchase intentions. This takes a long time and is expensive to build it back.

Naresh Gupta

Bending advertising rules involves pushing the boundaries within the confines of the regulations and societal norms, while breaking advertising rules refers to the outright violation of those rules, resulting in more severe consequences.

Also Read: Expert Speak: Is there a need for a ‘Made with AI’ tag for transparency?

Consequences of breaking rules

Advertising rules are put in place to protect consumers and ensure fair practices in the advertising industry. When brands fail to comply with these regulations, they face various negative outcomes. 

Social Samosa reached out to the Advertising Standard Council of India to learn about the regulations around brands and agencies breaking advertising rules.

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Manisha Kapoor, CEO and Secretary General, ASCI, explained that any ad that is misleading, offensive, encourages harmful situations, or is unfair in competition is a violation of the ASCI code. In such cases of violations, the jury debates the details and nuances of the ads and provides a recommendation in terms of asking organizations to modify or withdraw. 

She said, “The consequences of violating the ASCI code or the laws are that these brands can be penalized, they can eventually lose their reputation, and they can be prosecuted under the law. So, that's a risk and brands have to decide whether they want to take it or not.”

She believes that if fines and punishment are not going to deter people, then nothing else can.

The code and the law are quite clear in terms of what constitutes objectionable advertising and I therefore think brands that are going too far, are in that sense willful offenders.

Manisha Kapoor

Do’s and Dont’s

Kapoor shared a few pointers on what is considered as misleading advertising.

  • Brands and agencies cannot exploit the consumer's lack of expertise in a particular area and confuse them about what the offering is.
  • They cannot use a person of repute or an institution of repute. They can't use their name or logo or refer to them if they have not given permission. 
  • They can not discriminate against any religion or gender or anyone on the basis of their body or their age.

Lath asks the brands and agencies to challenge the status quo without losing sight of the brand’s core values. She asks them to think outside the box without losing their authenticity in the process. 

She said, “Do push boundaries but don't neglect the importance of ethics and responsibility. Remember, when breaking rules, it's not just about making noise; it's about creating a lasting impact that resonates with your audience and stands the test of time.”

Bending advertising rules can be thrilling, like walking on a tightrope. But breaking them will definitely lead to a crash. Responsible advertising can be like strapping on a safety harness for your marketing stunts. 

It's like crossing the stop line at a red light so that you can take off faster than others, but if you did that, the cops have the right to prosecute. It's the same for brands.

Naresh Gupta

While taking shortcuts can be exhilarating and fetch your short-term goals, experts remind advertisers not to lose sight of the long-term too. 

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