Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

When Ads Speak Louder Than Facts

False and misleading claims made by advertising practitioners in Pakistan are jeopardising the industry’s future growth, writes Imtisal Abbasi.
Published 01 Mar, 2024 11:14am

In the dynamic world of commerce, advertising serves as the lifeblood that fuels consumer awareness and drives purchasing decisions. However, like everything else in Pakistan, the ethical underpinnings of advertising have also been challenged. The prevalence of false and misleading claims in advertising has become a pervasive issue that not only jeopardises consumer trust but undermines the integrity of businesses. This article delves into the intricate web of false claims in advertising, exploring their multifaceted impact on consumers and on businesses.

False advertising manifests itself in various forms; from exaggerated product benefits, fabricated testimonials, unsubstantiated comparisons with competitors, deceptive pricing strategies, to misleading characterisation and impersonation by actors and models acting as if they are experts in areas such as healthcare, and in many cases, by simply pretending to be doctors. The case of models/actors impersonating doctors is rampant and continues unabated in categories such as soaps, creams, shampoos and herbal remedies, to name a few. The ubiquity of false claims poses a significant threat to principles of honesty and transparency that should govern commercial communication. With the proliferation of Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, TikTok and other digital distribution channels, the scale of misleading claims has reached unprecedented levels and grows unchecked.

In the past, with a single channel environment of state-run TV and radio, there was a PTV censor board that would wake up (albeit rarely) to issues such as false claims when they took a break from searching for ‘immoral’ content in advertising. However, with the proliferation of channels, there is no body or code which can protect viewers from misinformation. The Pakistan Advertisers Society (PAS) aims to curb these practices, but its scope is limited to its members. In the age of AI, one can only shudder at the implications of the unrelenting barrage of duplicity found in Pakistani advertising.

The sad part is that this practice is perpetuated not only by small local players. The companies who indulge in flagrant violations of ethical practices in marketing communications come in all shapes and sizes and multinationals have also been found guilty of such practices. Some of the biggest telcos have been found using misleading claims in their value offers and taken to task by the Competition Commission of Pakistan (CCP). The CCP is kept busy by companies in every category: food, beverages, consumer durables, real estate, tobacco, fashion and healthcare, to name a few, have been caught by the CCP.

The scale of this – to borrow a term from the advertising lexicon – is 360. Misleading claims are found in all spheres of the marketing communications ecosystem from TV, digital, retail, and direct to consumer or activation – making it very difficult to track and rectify.

When it comes to e-commerce, the digital landscape poses unique challenges in terms of monitoring content and enforcing regulations. Consumers are often enticed by attractive discounts and promotions only to discover hidden costs, such as exorbitant shipping fees or undisclosed taxes. Then there is the phenomenon of bait and switch, closely followed by the delivery of fake or counterfeit products. A recent survey, conducted by the CCP and a preliminary probe, identified as many as 27 brands offering ‘flat’ discounts on their products. The CCP noticed that in reality, the flat discount was not flat at all and the discounts advertised outside the stores were higher in comparison to the actual sale price. The disclaimers of ‘terms & conditions’ when printed were mostly illegible and, in many cases, not mentioned at all.

False and misleading advertising claims have far-reaching implications beyond individual consumers. One of the most significant casualties of false claims is consumer trust. When individuals encounter misleading information, their confidence in the veracity of marketing messages erodes. This erosion of trust has a cascading effect on the overall market dynamics where, on the one hand, consumers become wary of advertising claims, and on the other, it makes it challenging for genuine businesses to connect with their target audience. Given that trust is the bedrock of any successful consumer-brand relationship, the betrayal resulting from false claims can have far-reaching consequences.

It is sad that the key stakeholders in this equation, the market research agencies, have either abdicated their responsibility or are so desperate for work, they turn a blind eye to this problem. The state is equally to blame for not creating a mechanism to protect consumers from such misleading communication. A body like the Drug Regulatory Authority of Pakistan (DRAP), which also functions as a gatekeeper for claims in the pharmaceutical category, can be a starting point where agencies and their clients can send in storyboards and scripts for pre-approval. It would be a good signal if there were to be a consensus regarding a minimum font size for and display of disclaimers in advertising, a ban on people impersonating doctors and other medical health professionals, vetting of claims and removing ambiguous language before the communication is released to the public. These are just a few ideas that will help brands and their businesses build trust in the advertising industry.

However, the responsibility does not lie solely with regulatory bodies. The onus is on the Pakistan Advertising Association (PAA) to wake up to its role and start collaborating with advertisers to enhance media literacy and guide consumers through the intricate landscape of marketing communications. Legal measures must be rigorously enforced and businesses need to proactively embrace transparency as a guiding principle.

In this collective effort, government bodies, businesses and consumers must converge to forge an advertising landscape that is not only transparent and ethical, but also conducive to fair competition. By addressing the root causes of false advertising and consistently enforcing regulations, Pakistan can foster an environment where consumers can make informed choices and businesses can flourish. Failure to do so risks exacerbating this detrimental trend, fuelled by low public awareness of consumer rights and a lack of comprehensive guidelines.

As we stand at the crossroads of advertising ethics, let this be a call to action. Let us collectively steer the narrative towards a future where truth prevails, consumer trust is sacrosanct and businesses thrive on the foundation of authenticity. The path to a transparent and ethical advertising landscape is challenging, but the rewards – lasting trust and sustainable success – are immeasurable.

Imtisal Abbasi has been working at various creative leadership positions at IAL Saatchi & Saatchi for the last 20 years. He has developed campaigns and ground-breaking ideas for several brands in geographies as diverse as Africa, Eastern Europe, Greater China, the Middle East, and South Asia.