Ads beautifully, truthfully told

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DIGNA SANTOS, ASC (Ad Standards Council) executive director

By Roger Pe | Special to the BusinessMirror

Imagine a billboard on Edsa. It may seem harmless, but on closer look, you see a different version of what was originally approved for display. In the aftermath, the netizens start bashing it. The trigger-happy kind join the fray and all-knowing people post them on social media. Who gets the flak and fined a hefty sum after?

When you pass through Perea Street in Legaspi Village, Makati City, you won’t easily see ASC (Ad Standards Council), the self-regulating body of the country’s ad industry. It sits inconspicuously inside a building with a famous name but packs a wallop to erring advertisers.

The building is in front of a familiar postproduction house where countless tv commercials have been made. On a one-kilometer radius, the vicinity has lots of trees, quaint and quiet. On a clear, sunny day, you might even hear some chirping of birds.

Though some ad agencies have moved to a more upscale Global City, the area still has a mini-Madison Avenue feel. Occasionally, you would bump into some ad industry folks in their dapper suits going to and from their offices.

At the ground floor, one would immediately sense the order of the day—Order. You don’t just go up, as the guard would tell you, you are ordered to wait for your turn.

By 8 in the morning, you are given the go-signal to proceed. As the elevator stops on the sixth floor, an almost bare lobby unfolds. It is icy cold due to the building’s air-conditioning system that has a preset thermostat. Except for rows of chairs that you would see in an embassy visa office, it is completely unassuming, with an almost stern look, exactly the opposite of many you have been accustomed to seeing.

Perhaps, that is the message it wants to convey. It does things seriously and it means business. By this time, you already must have gotten the drift and as you wait for your number to be called, allow us to double-check, have you done your homework?

Are your documents ready to substantiate superiority claims? Has your CPR (Certificate of Product Registration) validity not expired yet? If you are using a celebrity, is your endorser’s affidavit notarized?

What about your DTI permit number? Is the same reflected on the layout and on end frame of your storyboard? Have you gone through the generic name rules and implemented the technical specifications for disclaimer use?

Have you advised your copywriter that some words and innuendo executions cannot be used? Oh, just a second, can your messenger be able to explain your script in case you are not able to make it?

Let’s begin.

ASC processes hundreds of applications for production, airing and display daily. Committed to protect the Filipino consumer from false or misleading advertising, it must be firm and not easily swayed to bend the rules.

It has a code of ethics, patterned after the laws of the land, that it follows to the letter, much to the chagrin of those who are used to the old culture of “pakiusap.”

They are all written in a guidebook that is constantly updated and disseminated to advertisers and ad agencies, all things summed up in one phrase: Responsible advertising that respects the Filipino consumer.

Because of worsening traffic problem, ASC now opens its doors as early as 8 in the morning, the additional hour a boon to many but bad news to prima donnas.

By 10, the lobby would be filled to the rafters and on a packed day, the crowd would spill almost near the elevator area. Woe to habitual Johnnie-come-latelies, they now have to wait for the next day to get the results of their applications.

By 3 in the afternoon, you get the results. Provided there are no content issues, you get an approval. Same day. No sweat.

A word of advice: It is always best to personally present materials with potentially controversial claims and not leave them behind. Presenting prevents misinterpretation and allows you to argue your case (diplomatically) if necessary. You can also amend on the spot.

What to avoid: Do not fake a document or forge someone else’s signature. Do not make a production number or be so emotional. Do not call your boss and tell him/her to proxy for you over the phone. You will be shown the door.

A good measure of understanding will also let you see the big picture. ASC works closely and coordinates with government bodies such as DTI, FDA, DOH, BSP, NTC, CAB, NHI, HLURB, etc. Aside from these, it hears the side of religious, feminist, consumerist and gender groups. Yes, indeed, it is a tough balancing act.

“When you think about it, it is actually very simple. It is just a matter of following the rules,” says an ad agency account executive.

“When you apply for a visa, what do you do to accomplish a no-nonsense task? You do your homework. You prepare all pertinent documents before you even leave the house. You do not send someone else to do it for you. In this case, you do the same. You leave no stone unturned to defend your materials and keep your documents handy. Nothing beats a well organized, efficient and your best foot forward,” she adds.

 

Respect

ASC cultivates one of human being’s most innate qualities—respect in many different forms and regardless of someone’s status. It believes that respect begets respect, and like a magnet, it attracts mutual respect.

In the scheme of things, ASC’s paramount consideration is consumer interest. It reminds us what David Ogilvy said 50 years ago: “The consumer is not a moron, she is your wife.” Outdated? In this exploding digital age and highly mobile millennials with ever-changing buying habits, it is as timeless and relevant today, we hold her dear and respect her.

“When you respect the consumer, you get the respect back through sales and brand loyalty. Respect is being sensitive to what you say when you talk to your market,” says newly appointed ASC Executive Director Digna Santos.

Santos officially took over ASC leadership from trailblazing Mila Marquez this year. Her vision is to see ASC to be globally recognized as one of the models on self-regulation with a common code of ethics subscribed to by advertisers, ad agencies, media companies and planners. She wants to have a strong collaboration with media in implementing sanctions on advertisers that do not toe the line.

A leader who believes in participative management, Santos likes to encourage people to speak up and share their ideas. “I like to empower people to implement agreed-upon plans and policies so that there is buy-in. That increases the probability of our success and puts order on what we see in advertising,” she says.

 

Self-policing body

ASC recently celebrated its eighth anniversary and throughout its young existence, has been hailed as one of two Asian pioneers on self-regulation. It has a code of ethics that is on a par with, if not better than, Australia’s, and with a comprehensive manual written by a highly competent technical committee. It has become a model followed by countries of the Asean region since then.

There is no “ifs or buts” in setting the record straight for ASC, a stance that has earned it an image that is too rigid and with some people not exactly pleased.

But the country’s advertising watchdog on print, radio, TV, out-of-home, collateral, digital and environmental advertising is addressing that. It wants to do more, be friendlier and provide better service to the advertising industry. And it is beginning to be felt.

 

Better service, faster processing

Operationally, ASC continues to streamline its functions to provide better-than-yesterday service. It is because the drillmaster in the house makes everyone wide awake to do specific roles. She is none other than Maya Estrada, the indefatigable operations manager.

Estrada and Santos plan to bestow the Advertiser of the Year Award this year to honor those which have consistently adhered to ASC’s Code of Ethics and registered the best record in terms of the most number of approvals.

Both also implemented category specialization, a brainchild of former ED Mila Marquez to address concerns on consistency of decisions. The two also encourage consultations with an open-door policy, replying to every single e-mail, text message or calls made by advertisers.

Estrada personally reviews every single application before decisions are released. If she can’t because of panel hearings or meetings, a professional screener substitutes for her.

“I think my single biggest innovation is ‘humanizing’ ASC, that it is not some kind of wall that one can’t talk to. I talk to everyone, AEs, clients and messengers,” she proudly relates.

“It is my responsibility to make ASC more productive and responsive by providing effective and efficient methods in its business operations and day-to-day dealings. While my management style is hands-on, I encourage the staff to give suggestions on how systems and processes can be improved, since they are the ones implementing them and are on the frontline.”

Estrada and her team most recently introduced a new queuing system, which is now in place to lessen downtime and make processing of applications faster, thereby making release of decisions earlier than what it used to be.

If you’re active on Facebook, she makes it a point to post the first presentor of the day to encourage ad agency folks to be early and avoid the mad rush every day.

 

Professional screeners

A line-up of about twelve PS (professional screeners), rotated on different day schedules, provide advice to applicants. Seven are mostly present in one day.

Most of them are veterans in the industry, former agency presidents, vice presidents and top management personas with years of experience in advertising, marketing, broadcasting and other related fields. Two are former presidents of Creative Guild, the award-giving body of the 4A’s (Association of Accredited Advertising Agencies of the Philippines).

Some of them have been there when it was still known as ACRC (Advertising Content and Regulation Committee) of the Adboard (Advertising Board of the Philippines), an institution that bowed out of existence after 43 years—all of them giving back to the industry that made them.

Contrary to bad press, they are there to guide advertisers on what steps to take in case their materials encounter problems on procedural or content in nature. They are there not to terrorize but unburden them of unforeseen problems.

They are there to help by believing that advertisers are smart and can be persuaded to their own perspectives if facts are truthfully presented. Different folks with different strokes, they are able to discern and spot a creative expression from an unsubstantiated claim. If you are lucky, you may not even say a word and exit smilingly.

We asked what their most satisfying experiences in dealing with advertisers and ad agency people are and what they think about respecting the consumers in relation to their roles. Here are their answers:

Adie Pena:  It’s when a presentor shows up with a very creative material that stays within the parameters of the ASC Code of Ethics. No risqué stuff, no exaggerations, no BS. Just the simple truth told cleverly and brilliantly. Sadly, these satisfying days are too few and far between. Maybe most of us have forgotten to be storytellers and we’ve turned to be mere sellers of our client’s products and services.

Robbie Aligada: “The most satisfying moment is when you hear the presentor say, “Thank you, sir, I learned a lot. I believe that is giving back to the industry. Our role as guide and ‘instructors’ never end. The most frustrating is when you face a smug presentor who believes in oneself so much despite a poorly put together application.”

Audie Orleans: “Whenever presented with a material where the copy is inconsistent with the support data from client, one of my basic questions to the applicant is whether or not the approval process at client included the technical person (MD, dentist, pharmacist, veterinarian, nutritionist, engineer, etc.).

I believe they should be integral to the process (the FDA recently mandated that ads for OTC drugs should be signed (approved) by the pharmaceutical company’s medical director).

Creativity is not exclusive to any profession. The tech person is a resource. I think the client should always offer, if not require, that the agency team rehearse with the tech person how they intend to defend the copy before they apply with the ASC. If the tech person is not confident that the ad is defensible, client and agency should take that seriously.

Vira Arceo: “Very often, we meet presentors who regard the ASC as a censorship body. Thus, the encounter would kick off on a somewhat tense atmosphere. The presentor adopts a defensive stance, ready to defend his or her material to the teeth. This amuses me, and I am quick to muster all my humor to put the “embattled” fellow at ease. Once they realize that the ASC is here to help them get their message across their target market without adverse reactions from competitors, consumers or “concerned” sectors, they readily concede to the screener.

Being a professional screener is a stimulating journey into the recesses of creative minds. We are exposed to overwhelmingly impressive ideas that sell and dazzle. We continue to study, learn by heart and understand the ASC Code so we may apply its provisions in the most prudent way. And we expect the presentors to have similar discipline: know and understand the provisions of the Code, and comply with said provisions. That will make each visit a pleasant learning experience.

Toti Soliongco: “For me, only two things come to mind, in the limited time that I spend in the ASC: more strongly embracing “responsibility” in their communications, and adequate preparation.

Understandably, the priorities of brands are to effectively and creatively communicate, and sell. Perhaps, somehow, the push-back to carefully study and review the ad content and check possible downsides and potentially questionable claims and elements are either overlooked, or disregarded. I guess brands (and their respective handlers) would do well to consciously put a premium to the value of fair and responsible content, beyond the creativity. Let me clarify that I am not saying they are presently being irresponsible; certainly not. All I’m saying is there is obviously always room for improvement—instilling a stronger consciousness for responsible content, especially among younger and more junior practitioners.

In the area of adequate preparation, I noticed this in a number of my encounters with presenters. It’s quite disappointing, if one thinks about the waste of time, money and effort; if only they had adequately prepared their materials and support documents, it would have been a rather quick process. Many times, in fact, they’re actually only very small and simple things.

I’ve seen, without exaggeration, (mostly junior) presenters come only with the objective of finding out from the specialists and screeners what specific violations their materials are committing, and therefore, what substantiations they should prepare for the next time!

There are also some occasions when the presenters come armed only with an argumentative attitude, and nothing else. They try to make up for their lack of readiness by wearing down the screener and hopefully wring out an approval from him/her.

Let me say, however, that I have also been very impressed with presenters who come very well prepared, both in terms of knowledge of their facts, as well as readiness with their documents. One can sense that they’re obviously well trained by their supervisors.

Eleanor Agulto: “Think like a Boy Scout. Be prepared. The ASC will ask you to substantiate every claim in your ad. So make sure you have all appropriate and correct documents with you. Example: Clinical studies, client certifications, required government permits, product registrations, notarized and signed testimonial waivers, ASC preapproved materials. Brush up on ASC Code of Ethics and guidelines to ensure that you haven’t missed anything.”

Ed Roxas: “Even if consumers know how to think, we should practice self-regulation as it provides an effective and efficient way for advertisers to engage with consumers and to respond to their concerns about advertising. It ensures consumer protection and for them to have an impartial organization to run to.”

Charmaine Campaner: “More than ensuring that the advertiser’s claim is properly substantiated, I also ensure that the ad upholds our values as Filipinos. While consumer protection is ASC’s utmost priority, I also screen the ads in a way that their creativity is not compromised in engaging consumers.”

Jess Garcia: “It is my responsibility to weed out false and untruthful claims in product and service advertising that will mislead the consumer into buying a particular product that does not fulfill said claims. It is my duty to guide the consumer make the correct choice based on factual and truthful product attributes.

Elaine Mapa: “Creative license is not an excuse for a copy claim.”

Verlou Artuyo (Ad Specialist): “It is highly recommended that advertisers keep their materials truthful, keep their claims verifiable, understandable and do not overpromise.”

Over the next few years, ASC chief Santos hopes to see ASC recognized in the Philippines as the authority in championing consumer protection through truthful and responsible communications.

“We need to address ASC’s low awareness among our target groups,” she says. How? She wants to conduct seminars, workshops for advertising, communications students and teachers on ASC Code of Ethics in the next succeeding months. An ad campaign is also in the offing.

Santos also wants to talk to marketing and advertising schools to include ASC Code of Ethics in their curriculum. The need to strengthen relationships with various government agencies in implementing the rules is also in the works.

She wants to bring into the fold of PANA (Philippine Association of National Advertisers), where she used to function as executive director, companies/advertisers who are currently nonmembers, and introduce them to self-regulation so that they can benefit from this endeavor.