Truth about ads

Food regulator's action against companies making bogus and misleading claims is long overdue

If one is to believe the advertisements that punctuate Indian television programming, Complan will make a child grow tall, Horlicks will make her smart and a Kellogg's breakfast will keep her slim. It's just as well, then, that some of the more outlandish claims made by these fast moving consumer goods companies (FMCGs) have been noticed by the food regulator, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI). The FSSAI has issued notices in 38 cases of dubious or misleading claims, and prosecution has reportedly been launched in 19 of those cases.

India is not the only place where FMCG companies have produced slick but factually suspect advertisements. Horlicks, for example, ran an advertisement on British television that it makes children "taller, stronger, sharper", and this was rejected in a ruling by the UK Advertising Standards Authority. The same watchdog criticised Coca-Cola's adverts for its "vitamin water", which it claimed was nutritionally comparable to vegetables, and they had to be withdrawn.

In India, the cases have been filed for violation under the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006, and Food Safety and Standards (Packaging and Labelling) Regulations, 2011, under which advertisements that falsely describe food and are likely to mislead the public are liable to be penalised. Predictably, there is a pushback from advertisers, who claim the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) already regulates against misleading advertising. Given, however, that patently unscientific claims in advertisements make it through the ASCI's filters, this is an indicator that consumers need to be protected in a more muscular manner, especially since the ASCI relies on advertisers voluntarily modifying or withdrawing advertisements that contravene its code.

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