Brand Blocking: Threat or Blessing to Consumer?

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The debate on whether brand blocking, which puts restrictions on the advertisement of some products, especially Tobacco and Alcohol, was recently reviewed at the 3rd Africa Rising Business leadership conference in Accra. Raheem Akingbolu reports.

Insertion of warning labels; ‘Drink Responsibly’ on the advert materials of alcoholic products and ‘the Federal Government has warned that smokers are liable to die young’ on tobacco products are as old as advertising in Nigeria.

It is so in almost all the countries of the world. Perhaps this is one of the global advertising ethoses that practitioners and manufacturers have strictly adhered to globally. With the sole purpose of protecting the interest of consumers and discouraging underage drinking based on ad placement or content, alcohol advertising materials are also not allowed to be aired during the day on television and radio stations.

Few years ago, when the issue of sugar and caffeine suddenly became tools in the hands of rivalry brands, another subtle campaign resurfaced. A cross section of analysts in major markets has since been arguing that sugary, coffee and energy drinks, should be seen in the same light as tobacco.

At the third Africa Rising Business leadership conference held in Accra, Ghana last week, the issue of brand blocking was again brought to the front burner through a global debate on the continent’s regulatory environment. The panel discussion on theme, “Brand Blocking: Regulations and the threats to Consumer choice and Goods” provided an opportunity for an in-depth assessment and understanding of the current regulatory environment and the implication for brands.

The debate also reviewed the socio-cultural and ethical questions arising from the disruption of existing regulation by new technologies such as online video broadcast applications and the impact of regulation brand building.

The session was moderated by a Ghanaian journalist, Bernard Avle, while the founder of Endangered Species, Ron Cregan, gave a pre-panel presentation, which dwelt on views from his membership organisation working across multiple categories under what he described as;‘threat from over-zealous regulators and policymakers’.

The other panelists mainly from the regulatory bodies CEO of the Advertising Regulatory Board, (ARB) South Africa, include Gail Schimmel,, acting Registrar of the Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria (APCON), Ijedi Philomena Iyoha and Deputy Chief Executive of the Food and Drug Authority (FDA), Ghana,Seth Seaneke.

Earlier, the IAA’s Vice President and Area Director, Africa, Norkor Duah, while commenting on the panel discussion on the regulation at the conference, had stated that advocacy by the industry bodies such as the IAA and AAG in collaboration with stakeholders in the private sector to address issues regarding the regulation of advertisements should bring the needed balance to what regulators like the Food and Drugs Authority (FDA) in Ghana and their counterparts in other countries across the continent are currently doing.

External regulation
For the head of Nigeria’s APCON and Ghana’s FDA, who spoke from the perspective of regulators, censorship of advertising messages and restrictions put on airing hours for tobacco and alcohol are in the interest of consumers.

The acting Registrar of the Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria (APCON),Iyoha, who pointed out that advertising regulation is the same all over the world, argued that ad regulation in Nigeria is carried out with understanding among major stakeholders.

“Advertising regulation in Nigeria is through the buy-in of all stakeholders; brand owners, advertising practitioners, The National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) and other interest groups. Our major concern is to be sure that a particular ad is not deceitful and it is in line with the nation’s advertising code. Besides, we are also concerned on whether the said ad material is mindful of cultural differences and meet basic principle of advertising,” she said.

This was also the position of Deputy Chief Executive of the Food and Drug Authority (FDA), Ghana, Seth Seaneke, who also explained that FDA regulatory approach has always considered the interest of advertisers, advertising agencies and consumers.

According to him, “We are like the referees with the major objective to make sure consumers get the best. Yes, brand owners often think we were out to frustrate or kill their brands but we tell them no, our mission is for the good of all. FDA major concern is to promote a healthy society, the body discourages deceitful messages and urges advertisers and brand owners to follow international standard.

“From time to time, we involve in stakeholders’ engagement to feel the pulse of the people. FDA maintains a close relationship with the Advertising Association of Ghana and manufacturers of food and drinks on how best to run campaigns and suitable messages to use.

“We have been able to go far in this direction because at the market entry point, screening is carried on about what a particular drug or drink can do and the moment the message of advertising is contradictory after launch, we move in and take necessary action. Here, regulation is based on research and evidence.”

Self regulation
Much as she agreed that there should be regulation, the CEO of the Advertising Regulatory Board, (ARB) South Africa, Gail Schimmel, believed that any regulation at all must be by advertising practitioners for advertising practitioners. As the head of a self regulatory body in South Africa, the most important thing for any country that crave for self regulation in advertising is the need to understand global standard and respect the professional ethics. She said practitioners in South Africa decided to have self regulatory body because bureaucracy and lack of industry knowledge on the part of government can slow down businesses.

She said: “To us in South Africa, we see no reason for government regulation when we know where to draw the lines. It is about being disciplined, professional and understanding global standard. With those things in place, everybody will fall in line and businesses will move on without breaking the law,”

In his contribution to the debate, the President, Association of Advertising Agencies of Nigeria (AAAN), Ikechi Odigbo, argued that it is difficult to situate APCON as an external regulator because of the collaboration between the council and all the sectoral bodies in the marketing communication industry.

“Though APCON is a creation of government, it enjoys an independent status because government doesn’t intervene in its operations. The APCON council parades members from various sectoral bodies who take major decisions as concern regulations and sanctions,”
The President of the local body of IAA in Nigeria, Tunji Olugbodi, also argued that the peculiarity of the Nigerian business environment and various infrastructural challenges facing practitioners in the country may not encourage setting up of self regulatory agency in the market.

Contending issues

Beyond the socio-cultural and ethical questions that were raised at the session, many other sprang up. First, with the revolution of the digital world, which has made it possible for individuals to own platform as well as allowing children to access advertising on parents’ mobile phones, many participants at the conference wondered if government regulators have not been defeated. While admitting that digital has posed a serious challenge for regulators in Nigeria as in other places, Iyoha stated that there was nothing like digital when the Nigerian advertising code was put together, hence the need for review.

She said: “Much as I agree that digital is a blessing, I’m concerned about its threat to advertising regulation because a lot of unregulated messages are being churned out by bloggers and influencers on products to deceive consumers and regulators have almost become helpless. There is code of advertising in Nigeria but it was dated back to many years before digital revolution. Of course, this is a global phenomenon but like other countries, Nigeria is set to put framework in place to check the abuse of digital platform,”

Besides, many contributors were eager to know whether the age long approach of putting restrictions on advert materials of a selected product, hastotally achieved its aims. In particular,Schimmel, who spoke on self-regulation expressed concern over how government is regulating alcohol advertising but pay little attention to limiting alcohol drinking culture.

In view of the sudden surge of herbal products across African countries, APCON and FDA were challenged on measures being put in place to check deceitful messages through labeling and special programme on local radio and television stations by the promoters of various herbal drinks and medicines.
As a result of various advertising restrictions and ban, many contributors were quick to reel out how businesses are being affected negatively and how millions of people are losing jobs globally.

But despite all these, it was also revealed that the development has helped brand owners and advertising agencies to be more creative in their approach to campaigns. For instance, in an attempt to win the sugar and calories war, companies like Coca Cola, has since involved in brand extensions, which has given birth to many brand names, including Coke Zero, Coke Diet and Coke Lite.

In what looked like the best advice to government on how to protect the consumption patter of children, Cregan, who gave the pre-panel presentation during the debate told THISDAY in an interview that government should have involve more in awareness campaign rather than putting scaring messages on products. He also advises parents to be there for their children when it comes to counseling on what to consume.
“I don’t think we need to make life fearful for innocent children who are just starting life. Rather than putting negative messages on product packaging and advertising, I think government should have involved more in awareness campaign. In the same light, parents should be in the best position to guide their children and educate them on what to consume,” he said.