What will the Indian Medical Association recommend next?

What’s common between Asian Paints Royale Health Shield, Crompton Anti Bacterial Bulb, Tropicana, Quaker Oats, Eureka Forbes Water Purifier, Kent Water Purifier, Dettol Skincare soap and Odomos?

All of them have been ‘endorsed’ by the Indian Medical Association (IMA, a national voluntary organisation of Doctors of Modern Scientific System of Medicine), where a fee was paid to the association by the brand, for the privilege of using the name of the association’s ‘stamp of approval’ in their marketing communication.

Then there is the ‘endorsement’ by Indian Dental Association, for Colgate toothpaste and Pfizer’s Listerine mouthwash. And, The Federation of Family Physicians’ Associations of India certified Kinley, a packaged drinking water, at one point.

You may have seen the most recent ones, featuring Crompton LED bulbs and Asian Paints Royale Health Shield, on TV, since both are from this year. Crompton even announced this in their Q3 FY2019 earnings call very proudly!

For some odd reason, the Asian Paints ad which showcases the IMA endorsement has been deleted by Asian Paints (and is not available any more on their YouTube page either!

However, the certification by IMA stays!

Before I dig deeper, here’s a relevant and contextual backgrounder:

Due to Indian laws, Sensodyne cannot use dentists practicing in India in its commercials. So the brand typically scouts for dentists abroad, mainly the UK. They are usually first-generation immigrants with not so pronounced accents so as to not alienate Indian audiences while retaining the brand’s premium edge.

Source: The Economic Times, Brand Equity, dated May 29, 2019

Sounds a bit confusing? Doctors in India cannot endorse a product, but a ‘doctors’ association’ can?

According to Section 6.1.1 of the Code of Medical Ethics formulated by the Medical Council of India (MCI, the governing body of IMA), they cannot. (note the highlighted part).

UNETHICAL ACTS:

A physician shall not aid or abet or commit any of the following acts which shall be construed as unethical –

6.1 Advertising:

6.1.1 Soliciting of patients directly or indirectly, by a physician, by a group of physicians or by institutions or organisations is unethical. A physician shall not make use of him / her (or his / her name) as subject of any form or manner of advertising or publicity through any mode either alone or in conjunction with others which is of such a character as to invite attention to him or to his professional position, skill, qualification, achievements, attainments, specialities, appointments, associations, affiliations or honours and/or of such character as would ordinarily result in his self aggrandizement. A physician shall not give to any person, whether for compensation or otherwise, any approval, recommendation, endorsement, certificate, report or statement with respect of any drug, medicine, nostrum remedy, surgical, or therapeutic article, apparatus or appliance or any commercial product or article with respect of any property, quality or use thereof or any test, demonstration or trial thereof, for use in connection with his name, signature, or photograph in any form or manner of advertising through any mode nor shall he boast of cases, operations, cures or remedies or permit the publication of report thereof through any mode.

Code of Medical Ethics Regulations, 2002 | MCI India

In 2014, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare released an official note citing action by MCI, against IMA.

Not just that, Dr. KV Babu mentioned in the Government note was hounded adequately (as is the norm for whistleblowers).

When I first saw the IMA-brand taking center-stage in the Asian Paints and Crompton ads, I thought it seemed silly. But then, when I thought about it, despite the MCI rule that states that IMA cannot indulge in this, I considered another angle.

Film stars and ministers (Hema Malini – Kent, for example) endorse products. In such cases, we, the audience, are fully aware that a substantial amount of money has been transferred, and they are being used for the sake of ‘visibility’. In a clutter, a star would be instantly identifiable, and we do take Hema’s endorsement for Kent with a pinch of salt because we have mentally already deduced that they are doing it for money.

But such awareness (of monetary exchange) may not be all that clear when it comes to IMA’s endorsement. Plus, we hold doctors in a much higher trust-plank than film stars or ministers. And the very reason brands and agencies run after IMA with pots of money is because of the word ‘Medical’ in Indian Medical Association.

The endorsement supposedly conjures visuals of a large group of doctors rigorously testing Crompton’s new LED bulb (How many doctors from IMA does it take to change a light bulb?) and Asian Paints Royale Health Shield, arguing among each other vigorously over the health benefits of both products and then, once they have a satisfactory majority, they place their seal of approval on both products.

And get the XX crores that was promised by the brand, transferred to their bank account. For context, IMA received Rs.5 million for the Tropicana endorsement and Rs.30 million for the Eureka Forbes endorsement. (See: Is brand endorsement by medical associations ethical? | Indian Journal of Medical Ethics)

So, while IMA continues to skirt the ethical and categorical rules of IMC (right up to 2019, with the latest endorsements for Asian Paints and Crompton), perhaps the IMC should stop fighting with the IMA only on those grounds. Instead, it should perhaps let IMA a free hand with one rider – that the brands that showcase the IMA endorsement in their ads should also, compulsorily, add the amount involved. For example, if (for instance), Crompton paid IMA Rs.2 crore for the ‘pramanit’ endorsement, right under the IMA logo should be the text, ‘For a consideration of Rs.2 Crores’ 🙂

At one level, IMA is already steadily degrading the endorsement game with laughably bad choice of products like paint and bulb, away from consumable products and products that touch us in some way (what next, anyway? IMA-pramanit baniyaan aur underviyar? IMA-pramanit condoms? IMA-pramanit mobile phone? Or, IMA-pramanit payments app?) stretching believability. Imagine a doctor recommending a paint brand or a bulb brand (Mr. Mishra, for your headache, please take Saridon for 2 nights, after food. And ensure that you sleep in a room that has its walls painted with Asian Paints Royale Health Shield, with the light coming only from Crompton Anti Bacterial Bulb! You’ll be better by the end of this week!).

If MCI hasn’t found any other way to bring IMA to see sense, then the only way perhaps is to ensure they mention the amount too and let the audience then decide how much to trust the IMA-pramanit seal.

Related reading material:
[1] IMA ‘Kent’ endorse. Or can it?
[2] Medical associations should not endorse food brands
[3] ‘Certified by a medical association’: Poor strategy, say experts
[4] Drawing the line on medical endorsements
[5] Centre cracks the whip on Indian Medical Association for endorsing products
[6] Medical Council of India and the Indian Medical Association: uneasy relations | Indian Journal of Medical Ethics
[7] Commercial breach

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