Ethics in advertising

One of our regular readers, Mr.Abi has sent this note (and a query) for us. I wonder if any of us can answer the query.

I wish to bring to your attention, the issue surrounding the recent IIT coaching centre ads that mention, prominently, that “”the director of IIT Bombay, deans of IIT and 30 professors of IIT Bombay have entrusted us with the responsibility of coaching their children for IIT-JEE”. IIT-B has taken strong exception to the use of its name in an ad that appears to imply an institutional endorsement; it’s threatening legal action. Here’s a ToI report on the same issue.

I am wondering what the law says. Does the act of writing an appreciative letter — as a parent, not as an official representative of an institution — allow a coaching centre to use the institution’s name? I can’t imagine a coaching centre so casually using the name of N.R. Narayan Murthy or Mukesh Ambani in one of its ads — but this view is based on a perception of who has more power, rather than a legal judgement.

So, does IIT-B really have a strong legal case here? If so, what would be its argument?

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  • This case has a curious parallel with the NDTV case against the blogger Chaitanya (sp?) Kunte. (We’ve already forgotten that, haven’t we? Perhaps NDTV was smart after all – they figured that after some initial uproar, people would just forget it!) There, irrespective of what was right/wrong, NDTV garnered a lot of negative publicity simply by pursuing the case. Here, irrespective of the rights/wrongs, by making a big deal, IIT-B has handed the tutorial a lot of positive publicity – which is exactly what those guys wanted! My feeling is that the tutorial will bow down to IIT-B as they have got all the publicity they wanted and there is nothing to be gained by pursuing the matter further.

    Coming to the rights/wrongs, I think IIT-B has half a point. I fail to see how anyone reading that advertisement can conclude that IIT-B is endorsing the tutorial. The people who read the advertisement (in English, to boot) are bound to be fairly sophisticated anyway. On the other hand, merely studying in a tutorial does not amount to the parents “entrusting the tutorial with the responsibility for coaching for the IIT-JEE.” This seems to imply that the tutorial is akin to a guardian. The plain fact is that they are providing a service in return for money – probably, a substantial sum at that.

    However, I don’t know the legal position about using the underage son/daughter of the IIT-B director in an advertisement without the consent of the family – even if the ad does not name him/her explicitly. Perhaps someone could clarify? With regard to the Dean who was quoted, did he give his permission to be quoted? What’s the legal position here? Can someone be asked for their opinion and then be quoted publicly without their permission?

    Btw, I do agree that the advertisement is in bad taste.

  • there has been such instances in the past as well..but so far as making the institute liable is concerned, i am afraid if that would pass. the only reason is people can boast of names to gain reputation. that is legal in a competititive market. what is important is to find out whether the whole agreement was based on that false representation. if yes, the suit partly entitles to protection