“We make a lie, we invent want,” said Don Draper, the lead character in Mad Men, the hugely successful TV show about the ad industry in the Sixties.
But some of India’s advertising executives might have taken this advice too literally, and are finding themselves in hot water now that the country’s food standards watchdog, the FSSAI, has issued court proceedings to companies it claims have been stretching facts beyond the realm of common sense.
If you believe Complan’s promises, your children will grow to twice as tall as they would if they were to drink a competitor’s product. Meanwhile, Boost claims to “provide three times more stamina than sadharan chocolate drink” and Horlicks will make children become “taller, stronger, sharper”.
Last week, the FSSAI sent notices to 38 food companies for misleading advertisements, and now it has initiated prosecution proceedings against 19 of these under the Food and Safety Standards Act. Show-cause notices have been issued in the remaining cases.
The food regulator, which has presented a report to Parliament on the action taken in these cases, found that the companies manufacturing the food and health products not only made misleading claims in the advertisements but also carried similar pictures on the packaging.
The report showed that the FSSAI had immediately rejected some of the replies to the notices, saying the companies’ claims “cannot be accepted”.
However, the advertising industry is standing tall in support of the brands, with one executive, Ambi Parameswaran, telling TV news teams that a free market economy should provide enough competitive pressure to stop manufacturers from making false claims.
He said: “[Consumers] are not morons. They know what works and what doesn’t work. They know what is an advertising claim, and in their mind they know what is an admissible over-claim that brands can do and get away with.”
This is rubbish: it is a flawed assumption that consumers will know as much about the science behind nutrition as they would the cleaning power of detergent. One is based on complex fact, while the other is subjective and emotional.
What’s more, it is one thing to promote a simple and inflated claim, like your children will double in size, in the belief that the average audience would see right through it; but it is altogether more worrying when claims are veiled in complex, pseudo-medical jargon.
In this way, the FSSAI is taking action against Nutralite, which urges: “If you are not taking a truly adequate and well-balanced diet, the Nutralite Daily may be a convenient once-a-day choice of supplemental nutrients you have been looking for.” This claim might be true, but it is cloaked in vagaries.
While removing the superlatives and wild statements would remove much of the fun from advertising in general—and not least in India, where over-the-top slogans are part an parcel of the business—consumers must expect a fundamental level of protection, especially when it comes to the products they put into their bodies.
It is not good enough to say buyer beware! when it comes to food claims, arguing that the consumer should know better. By all means attach outlandish statements to products when these claims are subjective, such as “the world’s best-tasting chapati”—it’s all part of the game.
But when science is the arbiter, there is no room for lies, no matter how great the want.
Editor's note: What are your views on the standard of food advertising? Do you believe all the claims you read? Let us know in the comments below.