Indian society has been gradually progressing towards giving more space to notions like inclusivity and diversity in conversations around beauty. This is why an ad showing a woman’s dull complexion as the source of her misery in life was okay probably a decade ago but meets with a disapproving headshake from many today. This impact can be seen by how Fair and Lovely ads over the years have become much more subtle and understated. However, brands still continue to inculcate or promote a very discriminatory idea of beauty by claiming that their products can make people look fairer, younger or taller. And people continue to buy these products thinking they would satiate their insecurities, often forgetting that what they look like is unique and must be seen as such.

A recent proposal to fine or award stringent punishment to advertisements that promote such misleading claims thus comes as a relief. The new draft of the Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) (Amendment) Bill, 2020, recently proposed Rs 10 lakh in fine and up to two years of imprisonment for first-time offence, to companies advertising products that claim to make a person fairer, look younger, increase their height, improve their memory or offer cure for hair loss or greying etc. The Indian Express has reported that in the case of a subsequent conviction, imprisonment could be extended up to five years and or may incur a fine up to Rs 50 lakh.

Also read: Fine On Ads For Fairness Products Is Good, But What About The Mindset?

While this is largely perceived as a positive step, a concerted effort to transform advertisements on print and television medium has been going on for close to a decade now. Today, if an advertisement on hoardings, print and television is racists, sexist, ageist or stereotypical, targetting a particular community, the news and social media gets up in arms against it.

Speaking to SheThePeople around this ban, Shweta Purandare, secretary-general of Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) said, “ASCI, through its suo motu surveillance over the last five years, has looked at a large number of print and television advertisements to pick out advertisements that were in potential violation of the Drugs and Magic Remedies Regulations. Our joint efforts with the Ministry of AYUSH via an MoU have resulted in curtailing this problem to a large extent. The new draft notification is a very positive development which would result in protecting vulnerable end consumer from misleading and illegal advertisements.”

On advertisements influencing people’s choices in society, she agreed, “Advertisements play a major role in influencing not only consumer purchase decisions but also their mindset. It is, for this reason, ASCI introduces guidelines for Advertisers to enable responsible advertising.”

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Advertisements changed post-2014

While focussed associations and govt now prohibit companies from advertising their products with misleading claims, this isn’t a fresh occurring. The ban was first introduced by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) in 2014 for brands wanting to broadcast advertisements. It had put a ban on broadcasters from running an ad that didn’t comply with ASCI code. At that time around 50 ads were taken off-air of which mostly belonged to the category of fairness creams. Apart from these telemarketing ads were also significantly taken off-air.

In 2015, a Delhi consumer court imposed a Rs 15 lakh fine on skin and healthcare giant Emami and found its face cream “Fair and Handsome” guilty of “misrepresentation to the public”.

“It uses the word ‘ gorapan‘ in advertisement No. 1, which means ‘fair complexion’. In advertisement No. 2 it gives out a promise that the use of the product for a period of four weeks will ensure a fair complexion,” the court said, The Telegraph reported.

In 2016, Congress MP Viplove Thakur representing Himachal Pradesh also called for a ban on advertisements of fairness creams. “Such advertisements are the cause of a kind of racial segregation or apartheid in our society. They develop inferiority complex among women who don’t have fair skin. Is this what our culture teaches us? Girls feel that they are not getting married because of their skin colour. Such assurances pain women from inside. The government should do something on such issues,” she had said.

In 2017, Dove sparked a row when in a Facebook advertisement it showed a black woman pulling off a T-shirt to show a white woman who then pulls off a T-shirt to show an Asian woman. However, the racism in the ad was pointed out, they were quick to issue an apology demonstrating the change in consumer mindset over time.

Also read: Let’s Recognise Our Unconscious Biases And Address Them

Do ads pose as deterrents to mindset?

While ads don’t necessarily act as deterrents to the confined ideas of beauty, they do help propagate them if shown recklessly. For so long, the Fair and Lovely ads did cash in on the idea of Indian women wanting to become fairer to be successful in life and continue to do so. Brands make profits off of society’s insecurities and beef them up only so people continue to buy their products and their sales never stop.

However, with stringent fine and punishment in sight, brands cannot make direct misleading claims and are even changing their way of producing ads that are more inclusive and promotes diversity. This, in turn, is making society learn better. Initiatives like India’s Got Colour by Nandita Das that promotes diversity in skin colour are also game-changers forever making society evolve and see the whole picture from a different perspective.

While ads don’t necessarily act as deterrents to the confined ideas of beauty, they do help propagate them if shown recklessly. For so long, the Fair and Lovely ads did cash in on the idea of Indian women wanting to become fairer to be successful in life and continue to do so.

Also Read: Advertisements: How Some Manipulate Choices and Should be Ignored

Social rights activist, Nandita Shah of Akshara Centre also finds this ban a pertinent one. “This is a much-required ban as we don’t have any mechanism in which we can hold brands accountable for the truth in their claims. So then these claims just become a marketing strategy without them having to take any responsibility for it.”

While Indian society moves towards a more all-inclusive approach, having this ban is still very relevant, despite broadcast media being somewhat clear of misleading ads, as other mediums continue to propagate them heavily.

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