Introspection: A Panacea for Ethical ills of Advertising in India
Prof. Navin Mathur
Deptt. of Business Administration
University of Rajasthan, Jaipur
Ethics refers to a system of accepted beliefs based on morals that control behaviour.1   Thus, advertising ethics require that (a) advertising is truthful, (b) agencies and advertisers provide substantiation of claims made, (c) advertising is in good taste, and the generally accepted standards of public decency are followed, (d) advertisers refrain from attacking competitors unfairly, (e) guarantees and warranties are explicit, (f) advertisements are not false or misleading, (g) claims are not exaggerated, and that (h) testimonials are genuine.

Business ethics is mainly concerned with the relationship of business goal and techniques to specifically human ends.2 As such, ethics in advertising relate to the impact of advertising activities on the good of the individual, the firm, the business community, and the society as a whole, Indeed, good advertising communication is a mix of art and facts based on ethical principles. The real challenge of good advertising is to tell the truth in a fascinating manner.  Advertising is, in fact, an institutional part of our society, a social force affecting and affected by society's values and life-styles. The legendary co-founder of DDB, Bill Bernbach, aptly commented: "All of us who professionally use the media are the shapers of society. We can vulgarise that society. We can brutalise it or we can help lift it onto a higher level."3 

It is pertinent to define what "Good Advertising" is. According to the Advertising Federation of America,

a) Good advertising aims to inform the consumer and help him to buy more intelligently.

b) Good advertising tells the truth, avoids mis-statement of facts as well as possible deception through implication or omission. It makes no claims, which cannot be met, in full and without further qualification. It uses testimonials of competent witnesses.

c) Good advertising conforms to the generally accepted standards of good taste. It seeks public acceptance on the basis of the merits of the product or service advertised rather than by the disparagement of competing goods. It tries to avoid practices that are offensive or annoying.

d) Good advertising recognises both its economic responsibility to help reduce distribution costs and its social responsibility in serving the social interest.

In India, several efforts have been made to ensure that all advertising is "Good Advertising". The Advertising Standards Council of India has developed a code for self-regulation in advertising.4 This code for self-regulation has been drawn up by people in professions and industries in or connected with advertising, in consultation with representatives of people affected by advertising, and has been accepted by individuals, corporate bodies and associations engaged in or otherwise concerned with the practice of advertising, with the following as basic guidelines, with a view to achieve the acceptance of fair advertising practices in the best interest of the ultimate consumer:

a) To ensure the truthfulness and honesty of representations and claims made by advertisements and to safeguard against misleading advertisements.

b) To ensure that advertisements are not offensive to generally accepted standards of public decency.

c) To safeguard against the indiscriminate use of advertising for the promotion of products which are regarded as hazardous to society or to individuals to a degree or of a type which is unacceptable to society at large.

d) To ensure that advertisements observe fairness in competition so that the consumer's need to be informed on choices in the market place and the canons of generally accepted competitive behaviour in business are both served.

The code's rules form the basis for judgement whenever there may be conflicting views about the acceptability of an advertisement, whether it is challenged from within or from outside the advertising business. Both the general public and an advertiser's competitors have an equal right to expect the content of advertisements to be presented fairly, intelligibly and responsibly. The code applies to advertisers, advertising agencies and media.

It is pertinent to point out that in India various legal measures have also been taken to control advertising. The most important legal weapon against unscrupulous advertising is the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Act, 1969 (now Indian Competition Law). Other laws that directly or indirectly control advertising include the Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act, 1986, The Consumer Protection Act, 1986, The Indian Penal Code, 1860, The Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) Act, 1954, The Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act, 1956, The Cigarettes (Regulation of Production, Supply and Distribution) Act, 1975, The Emblems and Names (Prevention of Improper Use) Act, 1950, Drugs (Control) Act, 1950, and Trade and Merchandise Marks Act, 1958. However, these laws have failed to control advertising in India. There are various reasons for this state of affairs. The legal procedure is cumbersome. The cost of a legal suit is also high, beyond the reach of the ordinary man.  Poverty and illiteracy have also contributed to the failure of legal control on advertising.

          Evidently, the self-regulation and social control measures bear importance. From this point of view, the ASCI has a significant role to play.           It is heartening to note that some other organisations in the country have also endeavoured to ensure ethical standards in advertising. The Times of India group of publications, The Indian and Eastern Newspaper Society, and The Advertising Agencies Association of India have developed code of advertising based on moral values.

It is, however, anguishing to note that in India neither the legal regulation nor the code for self-regulation has succeeded in checking un-scrupulous and misleading advertising. Indian advertising continues to be a glamour trade, targeted at the bold and the beautiful, the rich and the famous, the celebrities and the celebrated.

The restrictions on tobacco and liquor advertising in India have entailed a lot of surrogate advertising, i.e., advertising one product extensively with the intention to promote another. In true sense, in surrogate advertising, there is Kahin pe nigaahein kahin pe nishana. The sports wear sold by the Four Square and the Wills clothesline are doing great business. There is lot of surrogate advertising through products like cloth, playing cards, greeting cards, ice buckets, peg measures, drinking glasses, etc.

Comparative advertising by producers of Surf Excel and Ariel, Nirma and Rin, Coke and Pepsi and Captain Cook and Tata Salt is notable. Quite often, the ad wars between competing companies leave suds flying. Proctor and Gamble's new Ariel, endorsed by Vimal, claimed in its advertisement that it is the first to introduce carezyme and organic dispersal, two agents for better cleaning. The moment this ad hit the stands, Hindustan Lever Limited came out with a new set of ads saying that Surf Excel has always had them and the company had never thought of advertising it. Another example is of Ford and Hyundai Motor India. They took potshots at each other. Hyundai talked about Ford's mid-size, three-box car Ikon with its hatchback small car, Santro GLS II. The ad war between Hyundai and Telco is also worth noting. Hyundai ad said 'car for car, Santro is the best seller'. Korean auto giant's ad concluded that Indica is really less car per car. In retaliation, Telco pointed out that Telco began delivering the car Indica only in March, 2000.5 In response to Hyundai's claim that Santro has a five-speed gear box with one overdrive, Telco said that Indica has a five-speed gear box from Jan., 2000. There is no denying the fact that several companies use the selective dis-information campaign to run down the competitive products. This form of comparative advertising is unethical for it is not based on facts and realities.

Many other cases of unethical advertising can be cited. Is Lux ad, which shows film stars using Lux, who is all probability never, touch or use this soap, ethical? In Ariel ad and the Breeze soap ad a daughter-in-law is shown arguing and scoring a point over her mother-in-law. Is it ethical? Moreover, in India, the sex-object image of women is commonly used in advertising. A woman is shown in ads of several products she never uses or buys. Having her in the ads is an attention-getting stratagem, though she adds no intrinsic value to the advertisement beyond that of being decorative. While the line of demarcation between ethical and unethical advertising is very thin and it depends upon the values, opinions, perceptions and judgment of the viewer, it can be safely said that there are a legion of cases of unethical advertising in India. 

Who is responsible for unethical advertising in the country? None other than the citizens of this country. Are models, celebrities, media persons, advertisers and agency people not citizens of this country? Undoubtedly, these people collectively make the ads unethical. Thus, arises the need of introspection—examination and evaluation of our own ideas, thoughts and feelings.

As citizens of this country, we must ponder over and understand what the Preamble to the Constitution of India says.6 It runs as under:

"WE, THE PEOPLE OF INDIA, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a SOVEREIGN SOCIALIST SECULAR DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC and to secure to all its citizens.

JUSTICE, social, economic and political;

LIBERTY of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship;

EQUALITY of status and of opportunity; and to promote among them all

FRATERNITY assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the Nation.


Further, as citizens, we have to sincerely perform certain duties according to the constitution. There duties are:

a) to abide by the Constitution and respect its ideals and institutions, the National Flag and the National Anthem;

b) to cherish and follow the noble ideals which inspired our national struggle for freedom;

c) to uphold and protect the sovereignty, unity and integrity of India;

d) to defend the country and render national service when called upon to do so;

e) to promote harmony and the spirit of common brotherhood amongst all the people of India transcending religious, linguistic and regional or sectional diversities; to renounce practices derogatory to the dignity of women;

f) to value and preserve the rich heritage of our composite culture;

g) to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wild life, and to have compassion for living creatures;

h) to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform;

i) to safeguard public property and to abjure violence;

j) to strive towards excellence in all spheres of individual and collective activity so that the nation constantly rises to higher levels of endeavour and achievement, and

k) to provide opportunities for education to child or ward between the age of six and fourteen years (applicable for parents or guardians).

Are the people of this country, directly or indirectly connected with advertising business, serious about these duties? Do they introspect on the issues like social and economic justice, equality, fraternity, and dignity of women? Definitely not. It is high time that advertisers, media persons, models and agency people, as responsible citizens of India, ensure that during advertising social justice is done, dignity of women is not adversely affected, heritage of our culture is valued and preserved, integrity and unity of the country is protected, and that advertising does not cause violence, disrespect to national Flag or National Anthem, or economic inequality. Public decency must be maintained and advertising must be in good taste. Going beyond this, those directly connected with advertising world, are required to contemplate how advertising can serve human ends.

It is often said, and accepted too, that India is a rich country inhabited by the poor. India is rich from the point of view of its natural resources, and poor from the point of view of poverty among masses. However, going beyond this popular belief and extending the meaning of the words 'richness' and 'poverty', it can be safely said that India is also rich from the point of view of its scriptures, philosophical and cultural heritage, knowledge and wisdom, religious and political leadership, scientific and mathematical knowledge, entrepreneurship and management. However, India continues to be poor— poor from the point of view of poverty which, in the words of S. Suryanarayan, "has many facets encompassing not only low income and consumption but also low achievements in education, health, nutrition, and other areas of human development, and expanding to even include powerlessness, voicelessness, vulnerability and fear".7 That in India there is "too much Government and too little administration, too many laws and too little justice; too many public servants and too little public service; too many controls and too little welfare" also make it poor.8 Indians are poor psychologically also. Such poor persons are "deprived not only of the minimum adequate provisions for physical life, but also of adequate sensory, social, and emotional stimuli necessary for the development of a normal individual."9 These dimensions of poverty must be looked into by the advertising people. Advertising must be for social and human welfare although simultaneously there should be economic justification of advertising.

This process of introspection, however, involves 'Chitta-Shuddhi' meaning purification of the mind with the noble thoughts of compassion, friendliness, humility, gratitude, etc. These, so-called "Bhavanas," lead to a refined and accurate perception of human relationships, contributing to sounder decisions. Advertising people should give heed to what Albert Einstein said: "Try not to be a man of success but rather try to be a man of value."      

It is a pity that while Indians consider unethical advertising a matter of serious concern, there is little self-realisation among them. They, especially models, celebrities, advertisers, agency and media persons, photographers, copywriters, artists, etc., do not understand the adverse impact of their own activities on the society which comprises these people also, their children, relatives and friends, and all near and dear ones. They have to realise that they are an integral part of the society. What is therefore required is altruism - willingness to do things which benefit other people. Why cannot Indian models, celebrities and advertising people have altruistic personality, which in the opinion of Bierhoff et al, is composed of empathy, belief in a just world, acceptance of social responsibility, low egocentrism, and internal locus of control (belief that one can choose to behave in ways that maximize good outcomes and minimize bad ones).10 Self-realisation is almost missing in them although they may be self-actualized.

It is worthwhile to mention that there is a Consumer Complaints Council (CCC) of ASCI, which looks into the complaints received. The CCC includes people connected with advertising business as well as the representatives of the public—doctors, lawyers, teachers, etc. However, these representatives are not acting with responsibility. Records reveal that during April 1998 and February 1999, out of 15 members of CCC, as many as 11 members attended five or less number of meetings.

ASCI propagate its code and a sense of responsibility for its observance amongst advertisers, advertising agencies and others connected with the creation of advertising, and the media. ASCI endeavours to achieve compliance with its decisions through reasoned persuasion and the power of public opinion. However, ASCI has failed it its mission. While on one hand members of the ASCI and its CCC are not serious about their active participation, on the other hand there is lack of public cooperation. Ironically, during 1998-1999, CCC met only 10 times, and during 2000-2001, 12 times. It cannot be denied that while there is widespread violation of the code for advertising suggested by ASCI, it received only 122 complaints in 1998-99, and 107 in 2000-2001. Further, in 2000-2001, out of 107, as many as 48 were intra-industry complaints in respect of comparative advertising and unfair competitive advertisements.11

Individuals hardly complain to the ASCI. Although the people are often in a quandary about the effectiveness of the code of conduct or its implications, their participation in the process of enforcing the code of conduct formulated by ASCI is vital. The responsibility of enforcing the code of conduct lies on the advertisers, agencies and the media. However, such responsibilities cannot be discharged successfully and purposefully without the involvement of the people at large.

Public participation in the process of enforcing the code matters. In November 2001, posters for Sunsilk and All Clear featured Hanuman, a monkey-god revered by Hindus, tearing open his chest to reveal packets of shampoos. Further, the jingle exhorted dealers and retailers to display the products to win prizes in a contest organised by HLL.  Shiv Sena activists kicked up a storm over this issue. HLL had to express regret for hurting the sentiments of the people and ultimately the company withdraw the advertisement.12 In yet another case, Justice Kuldip Singh (retired) of the Supreme Court who was conferred "Environmentalist of the Year Award" in 1997, returned the award (cash prize of Rs. 5 lakhs) protesting the sponsor's move to exploit the award and the awardee for their business prospects. In an advertisement in a newspaper, the sponsors of the award-Anubhav Group of companies, used the name of Justice Kuldip Singh to enhance its business prospects.13 Such type of awakening among the people of this country is required.

Further, the activities of ASCI and its contact address need wide publicity. Above all, ASCI has to review its functioning. The standards laid down by ASCI should be taken as minimum standards of acceptability and should be reviewed from time to time in relation to the prevailing norms of consumer's susceptibilities.

Indian advertisers and businessmen must integrate spirituality into business. Indian philosophy is "losZ HkoUrq lq[ku%" "Let all be happy." The principle of universal trusteeship says that all of us are trustees as well as beneficiaries of endowments conferred on us. It is repeated thrice in Svetasvatara Upanishad ‘‘l uks cq);k 'kqHk;k la;quDrq A’’ When we recite Gayatri Mantra we pray for the divine light to illumine our minds. Thus, Indian scriptures and ethos stress welfare and well being of all. Through this realisation by advertisers and business houses, ethical problems in advertising can be solved. What is written on the crest of the House of Tatas - Humata, Hukhta and Hyarshta, which in ancient language mean good thoughts, good words and good deeds - deserve attention of Indian businessmen and advertisers. There should be no difference between thinking and doing as Aitareya Upanishad says  "okd~ esa eufl izfrf"Brk euks es okfp izfrf"Brk"A The need is of purifying all pervasive polluting personality of the people of this country. This is the message of the Upanishads, a veritable treasure-trove of wisdom.

The responsibility for ethics in advertising is, however, on all people of this country in different capacities—as advertisers, media persons, agency people, celebrities, models, photographers, filmmakers, business leaders, owners of business houses, consumers, traders, policy makers and the public at large. It is through introspection and spirituality that we make this country a great country and a sacred motherland about which Swami Vivekanand said in Colombo over a century back as follows:

"If there is any land on this earth that can lay claim to be the blessed Punya Bhumi, to be the land to which all souls on this earth must come to account for Karma, the land to which every soul that is wending its way Godward must come to attain its last home, the land where humanity has attained its highest towards gentleness, towards generosity, towards purity, towards calmness, above all, the land of introspection and of spirituality-it is India".

Let us therefore introspect and find out our role in making advertising in the country ethical, and socially purposeful. Together we can inculcate spiritualism in the fascinating world of advertising.


1.Cambridge International Dictionary of English.
2. Thomas M. Garrett, Business Ethics Bombay: The Times of India Press, 1970, p.4
3. The Economic Times, 13 June, 2001.
4. The Code for Self-Regulation in Advertising, The Advertising Standards Council of India, Mumbai.
5. The Economic Times, 29 March, 2001.
6. P. M. Bakshi, The Constitution of India, Delhi, Universal Law Publishing Co. Pvt. Ltd., 2004.
7. S. Suryanarayanan, "Some Reflections on Development", Bhavan's Journal, March 15, 2001.
8. Nani Palkhivala, "My Vision for Free India", Bhavan's Journal, August 15, 2001.
9. Udai Pareek, Beyond Management, New Delhi: Oxford & IBH Publishing Co. Ltd., 1994, p. 102
10. H. W. Bierhoff, R. Klein and P. Kramp, "Evidence for the altruistic personality from data on accident research, Journal of Personality, 59, 1999, pp. 263-280. Quoted by Robert A. Baron and Donn Byrne, Social Psychology, New Delhi: Prentice Hall of India Pvt. Ltd., 2003, pp. 413-414.
11. Annual Report of the ASCI, Mumbai, 1998-99, 2000-2001.
12. The Economic Times, 29 November, 2001.
13. The Hindustan Times, 25 January, 1997.

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