To begin with let us understand what Surrogate Advertising is and then we come to the ethical part of it. Surrogate Advertising is a form of advertising which is used to promote regulated products, like cigarettes and alcohol, in the disguise of another harmless product.
Surprised? Yes sir, you should be. Companies are manipulating your minds through advertisements of harmless looking things to sell harmful products whose advertising has been banned or regulated by the Government.
How do they do it? This, rather shady, trick is designed on the associations your brain makes. What do you associate club soda and mineral water with? Ask yourself. Many would associate it with alcohol. This is because they are in a fairly close category.
So, a harmless looking advertisement of club soda gets you thinking about alcohol.
Another trick is that the banned product (alcohol or cigarettes) may not be projected directly to consumers but rather masked under another product under the same brand name. Products of a completely different category (for example, music CDs and playing cards) are used to hammer the brand name into the heads of consumers. The result is that whenever there is mention of that brand, people start associating it with its main product (alcohol or cigarette).
In India a large number of companies do surrogate advertising. You will find advertisements of Bacardi Blast music CD's, Bagpiper Club Soda and Officers Choice playing cards. They are hammering in the brand names of their main products in your mind through innocent looking products. The advertisements of brands like "Royal Challenge", "Kingfisher", "Blender's Pride", "Seagram's" etc. are everywhere, with some highly popular public figures promoting them. We all have seen these ads about trivial products from these brands on the TV, internet or even roadside hoardings. We know what they actually produce and sell, don't we? Yes, these brands primarily sell harmful substances like alcohol, cigarettes and tobacco whose advertisements have been banned or regulated by the government or media regulating agencies.
What does the law say? In India, the following have prohibited advertisements of these harmful substances:
CIGARETTES AND OTHER TOBACCO PRODUCTS (PROHIBITION OF ADVERTISEMENT AND REGULATION OF TRADE AND COMMERCE, PRODUCTION, SUPPLY AND DISTRIBUTION) ACT, 2003 ("COTPA"),
THE CABLE TELEVISION NETWORKS (REGULATION) ACT,1995
THE ADVERTISING STANDARDS COUNCIL OF INDIA (ASCI)
How do companies get around it? Companies like "Royal Challenge", "Kingfisher" etc. have simply subverted the ban by advertising their real products in a veiled manner. The products shown in the advertisements are usually frivolous items meant to create a façade behind which the brand promotes itself and its real products. Furthermore, they use their deep pockets to get some of the most popular celebrities to advertise their brands. Of course, they don't show their real product in the advertisements but ensure that they are being sold abundantly; hence creating a link between the banned substance and the brand in the viewer's mind. It's an open secret which regulating agencies often ignore.
This is indeed clever, but also a clear exploitation of legal loopholes.
What are the possible solutions to this menace that circumvents the law of the land? Solutions may come from:
Framing specific laws with unambiguous terms which allow such brands to specifically advertise only those products/services that are legal (to advertise) and sold in bulk by them.
The ASCI, relevant NGOs and people in general must take the initiative of raising awareness amongst the public against surrogate advertising. This could apply pressure on the companies and celebrities who endorse them, to remove/avoid such advertisements. At the same time, the companies which take such brands as sponsors or broadcast such ads must be questioned.
Banning the harmful products themselves, rendering the ads useless, even at the cost of losing taxes that come from their sale and the backlash from corporate lobbies and the unwitting public. This would, however, be a debatable and challenging proposition. However, we have seen it happen in states like Bihar.
Allowing the ASCI more power and discretion in order to identify and remove surrogate advertising, which may be the quickest solution.
The audacious misuse of legal loopholes or clever evasion of laws is alarmingly common, and their eradication must be given priority by the government and the society. This will maintain the integrity and effectiveness of the legal system and protect the society. Henceforth keep your eyes open for such tricks that corporations play and protect your family and friends.