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EXPLAINED: How Big B Found Out And What You Should Know About Surrogate Advertising

By: Kenneth Mohanty


Last Updated: October 12, 2021, 15:11 IST

A statement said Amitabh Bachchan had "stepped out" of the campaign for the pan masala as its brand ambassador

A statement said Amitabh Bachchan had "stepped out" of the campaign for the pan masala as its brand ambassador

Big B's decision to withdraw as the brand ambassador for a pan masala product puts the spotlight on the practice of surrogate advertising in India

Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan announced on his 79th birthday that he had quit as the brand ambassador for a pan masala product after he realised that it counted as surrogate advertising for an item whose publicity is prohibited under the law. While such surrogate ads are common across media, they represent a contentious area given that they run counter to the government’s aim that some products, like tobacco or alcohol, which pose a hazard to the consumer should not be advertised.

What Is Surrogate Advertising?

Surrogate means a substitute or the deputising by somebody or something for another. The common recall for the word is in relation with surrogacy, or surrogate mothers, where one woman agrees to bear a child for another. Surrogate advertising is the concept where one product, which cannot be advertised, is plugged via an advertisement for another product. Examples of such advertising abound in India; from clothing brands to cricket teams, several devices are used by the makers of tobacco-based or alcoholic products to achieve brand recall.

A statement said that after Bachchan — who is also an ambassaddor for the country’s pulse polio campaign — found out that his campaign for the pan masala brand represents surrogate advertising, he “stepped out of it" and has also returned the fee he had charged for the campaign.


Reports said that Bachchan was approached by an anti-tobacco campaign with the request that the actor should stop promoting pan masala as it is is a cause of cancer. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), tobacco use is “one of the major causes of death and disease in India and accounts for nearly 1.35 million deaths every year". The UN agency also said that India is the second- largest consumer and producer of tobacco with nearly 267 million people aged 15 years and above known to use tobacco-based products. It adds that “the most prevalent form of tobacco use in India is smokeless tobacco and commonly used products are khaini, gutkha, betel quid with tobacco and zarda".

Why Can’t Some Products Be Advertised In India?

Reports say that surrogate advertising emerged following the ban on advertisements for alocohol, cigarettes and other tobacco-based products that was brought in by the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995, read with Cable Television Rules, 1994.

There is also the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act, 2003, Section 5 of which says that “no person shall take part in any advertisement which directly or indirectly suggests or promotes the use or consumption of cigarettes or any other tobacco products".

Section 7(2)(viii) of the Cable Television Networks Rules, 1994, says that “no advertisement shall be permitted which… promotes directly or indirectly production, sale or consumption of… cigarettes, tobacco products, wine, alcohol, liquor or other intoxicants".

But while this amounts to a blanket ban, the Cable Television Rules adds that a product that “uses a brand name or logo, which is also used for cigarettes, tobacco products, wine, alcohol, liquor, or other intoxicants, may be advertised" if it is in conformity with stipulations, which direct, among other things that “the story board or visual of the advertisement must depict only the product being advertised and not the prohibited products in any form or manner" and that the advertisement “must not make any direct or indirect reference to prohibited products".

That is provision used by makers of alcoholic or tobacco-based products to launch brand extensions and undertake surrogate advertising. Brand extension is the practice, fairly common in the business world, where a company launches different products with a common brand name. It allows the company to take advantage of the trust and recall enjoyed by a successful product to advertise a newer product. However, this is a means that also allows the makers of items that are prohibited from putting out advertisements to launch products like packaged drinking water, CDs and cassettes, clothing, etc. and even an airline and cricket team (think Kingfisher Airlines and the Royal Challengers Bangalore IPL team) to promote their brand.

Are There Any Rules Related To Such Advertising?

The code of the Advertising Standards Council of India, an industry body that aimed at self-regulation of advertisements in India, mentions that “advertisements for products whose advertising is prohibited or restricted by law or by this code must not circumvent such restrictions by purporting to be advertisements for other products the advertising of which is not prohibited or restricted by law or by this code". But it also lays down much the same provisions for advertising brand extensions as stipulated in the Cable Television Rules.

Given that many companies launch brand extensions only to enable them to advertise the products they are prohibited from advertising — which means that a brand of drinking water or playing cards launched by such a company may mostly be missing from the markets, existing only as a product on which a tobacco-based or alcoholic item piggybacks for publicity — the Cable Television Rules also says that such an advertiser must show that “the product carrying the same name as cigarettes, tobacco products, wine, alcohol, liquor or other intoxicants is distributed in reasonable quantity and is available in a substantial number of outlets where other products of the same category are available".

It also says that the spend incurred on advertising such brand extension products “shall not be disproportionate to the actual sales turnover of the product".

Fleshing out these stipulations, the ASCI guidelines state that to qualify as a genuine brand extension advertisement, the in-store availability of the said product must be at least 10 per cent of the leading brand in the product category, or that its turnover must exceed Rs 5 crore yearly or Rs 1 crore in the state where the product is distributed.

The Cable Television Rules also say that promotionals for brand extensions of products banned from advertising have to be “previewed and certified by the Central Board of Film Certification as suitable for unrestricted public exhibition… prior to their telecast…"

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first published:October 12, 2021, 15:11 IST
last updated:October 12, 2021, 15:11 IST