Marketers in India Evade Alcohol Ad Ban by Promoting Surrogate Products

Government Moves to Impose Fine, Jail Time for Publishers Who Accept the Controversial Ads

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DELHI ( -- It has never been easy for liquor companies to advertise in India, and so the country's local brands have been taking the surrogate advertising route to make their names visible. Numerous brand extensions -- CDs, mineral water, achievement awards, even an airline and a cricket team -- flaunt the names of liquor brands and companies.

Allan Colaco, secretary general of India's self-regulatory body, the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), said surrogate ads accounted for 5% of Indian ad spending, which totals about $4.5 billion, according to the Pitch Madison Media Advertising Outlook '09.

The restrictions on liquor ads continue with the latest move of the Delhi government, which informed the Delhi High Court that the publisher of a surrogate liquor advertisement would be slapped with a fine of Rs 10 lakh (about $20,000) and a jail term of six months.

A few years back billionaire Vijay Mallya, chairman of India's United Breweries Group, said during a conference that as there were too many restrictions to advertise the beer brand Kingfisher, he had ventured on a path where he embodied the brand Kingfisher himself. So, if he was defined as the King of Good Times (the brand's tagline), it in turn helped him in building brand Kingfisher. It was an innovative way of advertising. He started to live the brand, including his Kingfisher Villa mansion and Kingfisher Airline, and the testimony to the popularity of the brand can be seen today.

No clear definition
Maheshwar Peri, the publisher of Outlook magazine and president of Outlook Publishing India, said, "Right now, the government has not clearly defined what they consider as surrogate brands, and there are a lot of gray areas that need to be specifically addressed. Does the advertising of Royal Challengers, which is a [cricket] team and worth Rs 250 crore, count as surrogate, or [does] the Kingfisher Airline fall into this category? The government does not allow advertising of any liquor or cigarette brand and we do not carry any of these advertisements."

Exchange4media covers advertising, media and marketing in India through the website and daily enewsletter, and print magazine Impact, published weekly, and Pitch, a monthly.

He added, "Surrogate advertising and advertising of brand extensions needs to be clearly defined by the government with regulations in place."

The status as of now is that surrogate advertising continues as long as it is for a legitimate product. The ASCI's Mr. Colaco said, "Advertising of products that are brand extensions is allowed as far as the product is available in the market. ... The censor board in this case passes advertising for these brand extensions."

As for the Delhi government move, Mr. Colaco refused to comment.

Nonetheless, the move has created quite a stir.

Expanding brand communication
Arvind Sharma, chairman-CEO of Leo Burnett, said, "We have adhered to the rules for surrogate advertising, and for more than a year now don't have any surrogate advertising on-air or in print. It is clearly mentioned that there cannot be any display of similar logo or a suggestion of a bottle for surrogate advertising, even if the brand extension is an appropriate product."

Prathap Suthan, national creative director of Cheil Worldwide for Southwest Asia, said, "If the government is OK with the product being sold, then it should also be OK with advertising."

An executive from a leading liquor company said, "Mass-media advertising is not the only way to promote a brand, there are innovative ways to drive brand communication. We have been doing communication at point of sale, below-the-line and trial activities to engage consumers."

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