Who governs ‘surrogate ads’ for alcohol?

New Delhi, May 13:
Mineral water, sodas, music and sports franchises are among the common avenues taken by alcohol manufacturers to advertise their brands. So what is new in this?

Nothing. But what is befuddling those in power as well as the moral police is how ‘surrogate advertising’ can be monitored in the absence of overarching legislation.

At the Centre, the buck is passed on between ministries and sometimes to respective States. This is even as consumer activists urging the Government to frame a central legislation, even if effective implementation will rest with the State Governments. In fact, the self-regulating Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) already has a code on brand extension.

“Surrogate advertising is not allowed as per law but we have been urging the Government to start taking legal action against liquor brands that violate these providers and are habitual offenders,” said Bejon Misra, Founder, Consumer Online Foundation.

Regulation of such advertising appeared to fall under the jurisdiction of at least five Ministries – Consumer Affairs, Health, Information & Broadcasting (I&B), IT and Social Justice and Empowerment. “There are ambiguous court rulings on the matter where alcohol manufacturers state that the logo is the identity of the brand and using it on products other than alcohol is a legitimate business activity. So it’s mainly down to legal interpretation and in time will need to be settled by courts to establish a stated position,” a senior Government official told BusinessLine.

He added any concerted effort to clamp down on the practice would have to be led by the Health Ministry, which took the lead in curbing cigarette/tobacco advertising.

Another official pointed out that Section 2(r) of the Consumer Protection Act, 1986 outlined ‘unfair trade practices’ for sales maximisation of a good or service and provided legal recourse for consumers if suppliers were found to have engaged in misleading advertisements.

“Though it does not explicitly mention surrogate advertising, sellers could be prosecuted depending on how a case is presented. That said, if mineral water advertised by an alcohol company meets requisite standards, it’s a murky area,” he said, adding new legislation might not serve any purpose and could lead to inter-sectoral conflicts.

Direct advertising of alcoholic beverages is banned in India but private channels have often permitted surrogate advertising.

“We need to have a comprehensive Central Law that regulates various aspects of alcohol consumption and promotion,” said Monika Arora, Health Promotion & Associate Professor, Public Health Foundation of India.