Advertisements tell us stories stuffed in a few seconds – it is a fairy-tale world of the strongest, whitest, coolest and simply the best. Alas, like most fairy-tales, advertisements are often false; the products are everything they are not supposed to be. More complicated still is the case of products like liquor and tobacco, which are banned from being advertised in the mass media.

The makers of most of these products which are banned from advertisements resort to 'surrogate advertising' – a sort of indirect advertising in which a 'cover product' is made to point towards the actual product, the latter being banned from advertising. For instance, the Ministry of Health (MoH), Government of India, has banned the advertising of tobacco and liquor. But many liquor brands (like McDowell's whisky) initiate other products like sodas in the same name which are then advertised. Similarly, many 'gutkha' brands introduce their pan masala products which indirectly advertise the gutkhas. Another instance of surrogate advertising is 'Four Square Bravery Awards' in the name of Four Square cigarettes.

The makers of most products which are banned from advertisements resort to 'surrogate advertising' – a sort of indirect advertising in which a 'cover product' is made to point towards the actual product, the latter being banned from advertising.

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And what better advertising than Bollywood hits showing superstars consuming the products in question. Shah Rukh Khan was shown smoking a cigar in 'Devdas'. In the ruffle over this which followed, the MoH indicated to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MoIB) that display of smoking in mass media must be banned. The MoIB in turn was pressurized by the film industry against imposition of such a ban. The industry suggested instead that self-regulation be imposed. Of course, no self-regulation was practiced since Amitabh Bachchan was again seen smoking in the film Bunty aur Bubli.

But one wonders if advertising can indeed influence people's minds to an extent such as inducing them to smoke, drink etc. Yes, says, Parag Paul Choudhury of Voluntary Organisation in Interest of Consumer Education (VOICE), a Delhi-based NGO, also member of Consumer International. Choudhury cites the example of Rajnikant, the popular actor of films in the south, who had a particular style of flipping a cigarette to his lips. Boys in the south unconsciously started trying to flip the cigarette in the same manner and many took to smoking through this playful, imitative initiation.

Choudhury also talks about the shifting target of the advertising industry. Through the 60s and 70s it was the house-wife but this gave way to youth being the target of the ads. The focus then shifted to children, which continues even today. He says that today, children can be seen in ads which are not at all child-products. He cites the Maruti Esteem ad in which two children compare whose daddy has the bigger car. "In fact, today 84% of parents take their children along when buying products which are not child-products – simply because children have a big say in buying decisions," Choudhury says.

The advertising agencies have formed an association called the Advertising Agencies' Association of India (AAAI) which also has a governing board called the Advertising Standard Council of India. The AAAI is almost like a union with the main function of protecting the rights and interests of the agencies. The governing board on the other hand, forms rules, regulations and guidelines to be followed by AAAI in order to facilitate work in a structured manner. The governing board also represents the agencies before the government.

According to VOICE, both of these organizations are only namesake. Far from performing their watchdog function, they often succumb to pressure from various corners. For instance, if a client has a problem with one agency member, another agency member takes up the assignment of the client. There is no teeth in the association's or the board's statements or actions, says Choudhury. The most they do is to withdraw ads if there is an uproar over them.

According to Parag Paul Choudhury of VOICE, tests invariably reveal that products advertised heavily fare very badly compared to the less advertised ones.

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