"It's all lies. Nothing happens if you use it," burst out my octogenarian mother, provoked by a shampoo commercial promising to turn your tresses soft, silken, and strong. I was torn between amusement and pity. Who believes the tall claims made by advertising execs in this day and age?
Certainly not my four year old who has already been informed — to fob off potential requests for crap toys and candy — that all ads are lies designed to get some sad sack to spend her precious money. And it's worked. Each time, Karisma Kapoor touts that anti-aging cream on TV, Mallika promptly declares on cue, "How silly. No cream can make you look nice."
A bitter truth that the rest of us girls have taken a lifetime to learn, after spending thousands of rupees on body lotions that leave your skin dry, creams that don't whiten, hair loss shampoos that don't work, diet supplements that leave your waist undiminished. Beauty products are the worst offenders the world over in the lies-in-advertising business, but in India, they have close competition from children's 'health' drinks.
Boost claims to provide "three times more stamina than sadharan chocolate drink”. Complan Memory claims to contain "memory chargers" to ensure that your kid is a better ratta-baaz than the next. Horlicks will make your laadla "taller, stronger, sharper". And hey, don't bother with that glass of milk if it doesn't contain Bournvita to ensure the right level of calcium absorption. Pediasure, “helps in a child’s growth and development”.
Each of these claims is "misleading and deceptive," according to Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) which plans to prosecute Heinz India, GlaxoSmithKline, AbbottIndia and other mega-companies in 19 such cases of false advertising.
There's plenty of bad news for adults as well. No, Special K will not make you skinny, those Nutrichoice biscuits may not be a healthy snack, and multigrain Maggi is likely no more nutritious than the ordinary kind.
Before we get too excited at the prospect of overdue justice, we should know that the Food Safety and Standards Act 2006 doesn't impose much more than a paltry Rs 10 lakh fine. A reason perhaps why FSSAI is baying for real blood. Earlier this year, FSSAI director Asim Choudhary told Indian Express that it was time to hit these companies where it really hurts: "Similarly these companies must not not be allowed to telecast such advertisements by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry and there should also be a ban on their advertising on social networking sites so that in course of time these misleading advertisements will be monitored at more than one level."
An alternative strategy is to go after the other great beneficiary of false advertising: celebrities. Actors have made a fortune endorsing false claims made by a wide range of products, lending their brands to campaigns that actively deceive consumers. Investors in the Susi Emu Farms were furious with brand ambassadors Sarath Kumar and Sathyaraj. According to Times of India, "The duo had appeared in TV advertisements for Susi Emu Farms, calling it one of the most lucrative business ventures while district collectors were sending out advisories cautioning people against investing in such schemes."
Earlier this year, Bollywood actors Govinda and Jackie Shroff were booked by the Food and Drug administration in a false claims case against a herbal oil endorsed by them. But why stop at them? But don't hold your breath waiting for the government to crack down on SRK, John Abraham, Priyanka Chopra and Deepika Padukone for endorsing fairness products that often contain chemicals like hydroquinone and mercury that cause hyper-pigmentation with extended use.
A few punitive cases, however, will do little to dent the constant onslaught of marketing in our consumerist world where everyone is always trying to sell us something. But here's the problem with advertising: false claims are just the tip of the iceberg. A recent study conclusively connected fast food advertising with child obesity rates in North America, while another study found that television viewing was inversely related to intake of fruit and vegetables, and positively related to intake of candy and fast food in American children.
Now, I can go blue in the face telling Mallika all about TV ads that lie, but what about those dreadful chocolate biscuits? The totally crap, sugar laden stuff that doesn't pretend to be healthy and tastes so, so good. Now what are we going to do about that?
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