Bringing sanity back in public service advertising

Published on May 17, 2015 00:58:58 AM
The SC judgment has given us an opportunity to restore faith in public advertising and to depoliticize it completely, says the writer Dinesh C Sharma

The judgment of the Supreme Court on government advertising is landmark as it concerns a subject of great public importance. The ban imposed on using pictures of politicians in state-funded advertising campaigns is a welcome one. Political parties, however, are looking at it from narrow prism of likely beneficiaries and losers due to the judgment.

Regional parties are particularly peeved as they will not be able to project their leaders through government ads, while a national party like BJP, they feel, could still use images of its national leader. The public debate on the subject has so far centered on political gainers and losers. This is particularly so because, of late, it has been observed that government -funded advertising has been reduced to an exercise in building image of Prime Minister and state chief ministers. This was never the purpose of government advertising.
Ad campaigns are undertaken by various government ministries, state governments, public sector undertakings and state corporations to highlight new public works, schemes and to raise awareness about issues of public importance. These ads are generally prepared by government wings meant for publicity - the Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity (DAVP) in the central government and departments of information and public relations in states.

There are broad guidelines about rates and media outlets where such ads can be placed. But there are absolutely no guidelines about content of such advertising, as it emerged during the public interest litigation heard by the Supreme Court. No safeguards are available to prevent misuse of public funds on advertisements in order to gain mileage by political establishment.

In the absence of any such framework, government ads are routinely misused to project central ministers, chief ministers, members of parliament and MLAs of ruling party and so on, with an objective to project as if new public works are a result of work done by political personalities or people associated with the incumbent government. At times, chief ministers place full-page ads in newspapers to ‘thank’ the prime minister for one announcement or the other. Obviously this happens only when both the PM and CM belong to the same party. Similarly, one fails to understand why anti-malaria and anti-dengue campaigns, which should normally tell people about disease causing vectors, carry pictures of political animals.

If providing information to public about a new scheme is one of the goals of government advertising, it would be safe to conclude that this objective is hardly fulfilled when bulk of the space in an ad is taken by smiling face of a political leader. The full-page ad placed in national dailies by the Ministry of Minority Affairs recently is a case in point. This particular ad was to announce the launch of a new scheme called USTAAD (which stands for Upgrading Skills and Training in preservation of traditional Ancestral Arts/Crafts of minorities).

The full page ad had precisely five lines about the scheme and that too in small font. The rest 80 percent of the space was occupied by huge cutout of the Prime Minister’s face and names of the ministers concerned and other officials. It was clearly an image building ad, and not one that was meant to serve its supposed purpose – provide information to potential beneficiaries about the new scheme. The motive of providing information could have been served with smaller ads with essential information about the scheme including details of government offices or websites where interested people could contact.

Advertising is also supposed to motivate people to take some action or change their behaviour. In the case of commercial advertising, it is meant to motivate people to but the product or service being advertised. Judged by this criterion, it remains doubtful if government ads serve this purpose. They are so poorly designed and lack creativity that they can hardly be motivating. In addition, efforts are lacking to gather data about their effectiveness or reach in target audience. Some research is available on effectiveness of specific campaigns such as those relating to immunisation, health promotion, tobacco control etc.

The ‘jago grahak jago’ campaign of the Department of Consumer Affairs has been executed well and has caught people’s attention. The one run by the election commission to motivate young voters to exercise their franchise was also creatively executed. These are good examples of public ads. For any campaign to be successful, it has to be sustained and backed by proper infrastructure like help lines, websites, information brochures etc.

The SC judgment has given us an opportunity to restore faith in public advertising and to depoliticise it completely. 
- The writer is Fellow, Centre for Media Studies (CMS), New Delhi. Views expressed are personal.