Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Nuisance to new sense: Can edtech advertising kill FOMO?

ASCI has released a long list of advertising guidelines for educational institutions and edtech players. But can they curb the menace of misleading and objectionable advertising? Well, looks like 'past record is no guarantee of future prospects'

Rajiv Singh
Published: May 30, 2023 01:15:04 PM IST
Updated: May 31, 2023 09:57:54 PM IST

ASCI has released a long list of advertising guidelines for educational institutions and edtech players.
Illustration: Chaitanya Dinesh SurpurASCI has released a long list of advertising guidelines for educational institutions and edtech players. Illustration: Chaitanya Dinesh Surpur

There are businesses that survive on FOMO (fear of missing out). The communication, therefore, hinges on the big ‘if’. Take, for instance, the skin whitening and fairness cream industry. Its advertisements are targeted towards teens and young adults of both genders (but largely skewed towards girls and women). The commercials, as expected, revolve around ‘if’: If you use the cream, then you will become fair; if you use the lotion and become fair, then you will become attractive to the other gender; if you use skin whitening products, then you will gain confidence, and this will have a positive rub-off on your job, personal life and marriage. The endless nuisance of ‘if’ never ends.

Then there are businesses that thrive—not just survive—on FOMO. The biggest and most inglorious example would be the business of education, and its notorious offshoot—edtech. A sea of misleading claims, fallacious advertisements making tall, exaggerated promises, and an orchestrated strategy that plays on the insecurities of parents are reasons why edtech and education have scored poorly in perception and credibility over the last few years.

Have a look. A bunch of loaded edtech startups—lead being taken by coding startups—bombard social media and television with outrageous commercials that sharply drive one message to parents: You are missing out. From ‘the next billion-dollar idea can come from your kids’ to ‘Silicon Valley is waiting for the tech geniuses’ to ‘make your child a TedX speaker’ or ‘an app developer’ to ‘two-teacher’ tuition will lead to better results, edtech startups played out every trick in the book to trick parents into a false sense of realisation that the future of their kids is in danger if they don’t use their services. No wonder, the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) was swamped with complaints filed by agitated consumers. Look at the number of advertisements processed and reviewed by ASCI: From 97 in 2021-22, the numbers jumped to a staggering 214 in 2022-23.

No wonder, ASCI has released a long list of advertising guidelines for educational institutions and edtech players. This time, the effort is to sensitise advertisers and edtech players about the mental and physical wellbeing of students. Have a look at some of the dos and don’ts. An advertisement, says one of the clauses, must not portray an average or poor scorer as an unsuccessful student or a failure, or show him/her/them as demotivated, depressed or unhappy, or receiving less love or appreciation from parents, teachers or peers. Another one talks about the need to stay away from FOMO: An advertisement must not create a false sense of urgency or fear of missing out that could accentuate anxieties amongst school students, or parents.

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Manisha Kapoor explains the need for an updated list of guidelines, and the necessity of strict self-regulation by education and edtech players. “While fierce pressure in education is a reality, advertising must not perpetuate this problem or normalise it or exploit student and parental vulnerability,” underlines the chief executive officer of ASCI, a self-regulatory body of the advertising industry. ASCI, she adds, remains deeply committed to consumer protection, and will continue to update its code to reflect contemporary and emerging concerns in advertising content.

Though the intent of ASCI can’t be questioned, the larger and bigger question to ask is, will the new norms tame the habitual offenders? Marketing and advertising experts are unanimous in their assessment, that barking alone won’t solve the problem. “Such nuisance offenders need corporal punishment,” says Ashita Aggarwal, professor (marketing) at SP Jain Institute of Management and Research. “Self-regulation works where the stakeholders realise there is a Lakshman Rekha and it must not be crossed at any cost. If selling spurious drugs is a crime, then selling fantasy to parents, making misleading commercials and playing with the emotional and mental wellbeing of kids is also a serious crime that must be punished. There is no deterrent. That’s why the menace is on.”

Though a strict enforcement of norms will help, what is also needed to nip the vexing issue is active cooperation from parents. “Nobody can play on your FOMO if you don’t create a FOMO for yourself and the kids,” reckons Rajan Gahlot, assistant professor at Delhi School of Economics. Advertising alone doesn’t create a pressure. “The pressure from inside—parents—is equally dangerous.”

There is a pressing need to shun nuisance and embrace a new sense. But the million-dollar question is: Can edtech players, and parents clear the test or will they flunk?