Responsibilities and Regulations in Advertising A Consumer Viewpoint

Address by Anwar Fazal at the 15th Asian Advertising Congress on 7 July 1986 at Bangkok, Thailand

“Once upon a time a lamb, with a love for objective knowledge, decided to find out the truth about wolves.  He had heard so many nasty stories about them.  Were they true?  He decided to get a first-hand report on the matter.  So he wrote a letter to a philosopher-wolf with a simple and direct question, “ what are wolves?”  The philosopher-wolf wrote a letter back explaining what wolves were, their shapes, sizes, colours, thoughts, social habits, etc.  He thought, however, that it was irrelevant to speak of the wolves’ eating habits since, according to his own philosophy, these did not belong to the ‘essence’ of wolves.  Well, the lamb was so delighted with the letter that he decided to pay a visit to his new friend, the wolf.  And only then did he learn that wolves are very fond of barbecued lamb.”

Quoted from Ruben Alves, World Council of Churches Conference on ‘Faith, Science and the Future’, July 1979. 

As a hardcore consumer advocate attending a conference of over 700 Advertising people, I did think of your appetite and taste especially with recession and dislocations around.  Hungry and angry wolves are even more worrying.  I thought I will come anyway and hope that what I have to say will be filling perhaps even nutritious, and hoping too that no one will choke on it.

Just over 50 years ago, Professor Colstone Warne, the founder of Consumers Union, the largest consumers group in the world, and the first president of the International Organization of Consumers Union said, “It is likely that nothing short of a revolution will substantially alter the character of the business system or its ally advertising”. 

That revolution is today spanning the globe.  There are diverse consumer groups large and small in countries in every state of development – from Japan to Jamaica, Fiji to Finland and  Argentina to Zimbabwe in tiny Curasao and the giant China and, of course, everywhere in Europe and North America. 

This revolution has spanned a whole series of networks around baby food, drugs, pesticides, smoking, hazardous products and processes and even around the food flavouring monosodium glutimate, infamously associated with the Chinese restaurant syndrome. 

These networks bring together citizens and public interest groups together in a way unprecedented in the history of popular citizen movements – the names like IBFAN, HAI, PAN, AGHAST, Consumer Interpol and yesterday born in Bangkok the youngest (and most polite) of these networks “No MSG please” Action Network.

The consumer movement has begun to excite interest and involve ordinary people in a way unprecedented in our short history.  Diverse organisations are building on the strength of weak links creating decentralised participatory structure, unencumbered by bureaucracy spread throughout the world and united in new forms of solidarity. 

This revolution, to the disappointment of some who like to discredit us, is not of the left or of the right. It is a revolution of a popular non-partisan common perspective of all of us as consumers, users of goods and services, whether provided by government or privately.  It is a perspective that also is concerned about involuntary consumption and the consumption of common community goods- air, the open places.

This revolution is about rights, basic needs, safety, information, choice, representation, redress, consumer education and health environment.  This revolution is about the power to buy and even more significant (certainly to you) the power not to buy and even to organise that among the community – the deadly word boycott.

This movement is also about responsibilities –need to be critical, need to act, need to be socially responsible, environmentally responsible and to have solidarity.This revolution now has a day of celebration – World Consumer Rights Day on 15 March - the date the late President JF Kennedy 24 years ago announced a charter of consumer rights in the US Congress.

This revolution now has won the attention of the highest conscience of the world - the United Nations – which last year unanimously adopted the universal consumer protection guidelines.

Today, consumer protection is not a fringe movement but a universally accepted social necessity – a public responsibility.

And because of this new recognition, this new power, it is no longer business as usual and no longer advertising as usual.

There is a new paradigm

Yes, it is no longer advertising as usual.  There are three basic equations: -

  • Consumers need to be protected from bad advertising.  (we want substantial arrestive advertising and we want advertising to be treated as warranty.)
  • Good advertisers need to be protected from bad advertisers.
  • Both consumers and advertisers need to be protected from indifferent, inefficient, ignorant bureaucracy.

 In that context, I’d like to share with you two anecdotes from my own experience with advertising and the advertising industry so that no one will get overexcited and also understand this is purely for illustration.  I will, on this happy occasion, avoid mentioning names of countries and companies.  I will be happy, of course, to provide them to you outside this meeting or if you want to write to me. 

As all of you know, the degree of skepticism about advertising is very high.  Advertising is generally neither correlated to quality, cost nor to truth.  “Zapping” is one manifestation of this.

Concern about advertising standards has grown out of such frustration, injustice and distrust.  It has bred a lingering suspicion and skepticisms about the industry’s ability to ensure that its activities are legal, decent, honest and truthful.  It has fuelled a clamour for stronger regulation.  It has generated a new pressure for international action for norms, codes and agreements.  It saw a global code on the marketing of breastmilk substitutes.  Consumers are relentlessly monitoring advertisements.  Consumer groups are preparing global report cards in compliance with codes.  In May, in Geneva, the first of such global report cards were launched.

If an industry does not want us to take a negative interest in them, the intelligent way is to take positive measures – to exercise self discipline in marketing and to join together industry-wide to self regulate a globally agreed standard. 

It is failure in this regard, failure, to make this discipline a permanent part of the corporate personality that can lead to problems.  There will be a heavy price to pay because consumer groups throughout the world are more sophisticated and organised and are networking internationally and can expose you effectively and will do so.  There will be a heavy price to pay because there will be more demands for the heavy hand of law.

We need not only self discipline, self regulation but also regulated codes of practice – a muddle way perhaps.  And we shall always need some basic laws to punish criminal acts. 

The notion of responsibility is central and more than anything else will make a real permanent and low case change.  Unfortunately, we live in a rather less than ideal world where checks and balances are needed and where laws are necessary as safety net good laws, enforced laws.

It will also be naïve to assume that we will agree easily on what constitutes responsibility and that’s one of the adventurous parts of this work.

In that context, the consumer movement is concerned about what I have called the Three Terrible Technologies.


The first of this is the technology of violence- products that can harm, be abused, have high personal and social costs.  These will be subject constantly to severe scrutiny e.g. tobacco, alcohol, medicines, junk food, food chemicals, and toys.

The second is the technology of manipulation – here concerns are particularly with vulnerable groups – children and the illiterate.  Advertising to such groups will also be prescribed increasingly.  New concerns about placement advertising in films, the third world particularly.

There is and will be a strong move to demarketing the products of such technologies. 

There are also many other concerns to resolve in trying to develop our common interest in good business practices, in creative and worthwhile communication and together bringing joy and happiness to the world.

I call these “The Ten Tensions”. 

The Ten Tensions

  1. Right vs. Wrong – culture/sex/sweets/war toy movement or indigenous culture and against sexist advertisements – placing in films, using big names who do not use these products/sponsorship.
  2. Freedom vs. Regulation - When Patrick Henry  said “give me liberty or give me death”, he was not talking of advertising.  The movement for prescribing certain kinds of advertisements, certain kinds of products to certain kinds of people will be stronger especially in new countries, new consumers.
  3. Needs vs. Wants. 

Movement for basic needs first

  1. Private vs. public needs
  2. Individual needs vs. Collective needs
  3. National vs. Foreign

Not just advertising agencies, products, culture, TNC, satellites & neighbour values, heavy advertising projects, the usual TNC

  1. National vs. International
  2. Advertisers vs. Editors (influence/control)
  3. Advertising vs. Advertising (Comparative, monitoring enforcement)
  4. Advertisers vs. Advertising Agencies (prostitution).

We must deal with these tensions in constructive ways. I come from a movement with is not anti-business but anti-bad business, not anti-advertising but anti-bad advertising.

We are for good business, good advertising, responsibility and sound regulations.  I believe we can work constructively and together to be a force for happiness.  Many countries and many of you have shown that being legal, decent, honest and truthful can pay.  We must together make sure it does – you through good advertising and we through supporting good products and may the two often meet.

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