Last week, I was invited by the Competition Commission of Pakistan (CCP) to present a paper on Deceptive Marketing Practices, at the 3rd International Conference, organized by CCP, in collaboration with the Delegation of the European Union, at the Serena Hotel, Islamabad.

The theme of the two-day conference was, “The Role of Competition in Fostering Trade and Investment” and the objectives were, “To explore and discuss the importance of competition law for creating a business environment that fosters trade and investment and policies by other countries”.

Besides distinguished speakers from trade, industry and consumer bodies in Pakistan, the other participants included internationally acclaimed experts on competition laws from America, Europe, Africa, Far East, and South Asia.

In her welcome address, Ms Rahat Kaunain Hassan, Chairperson, Competition Commission of Pakistan, highlighted the activities of CCP in the last three years and its achievements.

While in his keynote address, HE Lars-Gunnar Wigemark, Ambassador and Head of Delegation of the European Union to Pakistan, explained the role of the EU in promoting the Role of Competition in industry and trade, in order to protect consumer interests.

This was followed by a presentation by Mr Eduardo Perez Motta, President, Mexican Federal Competition Commission, who highlighted the role of his organization in providing a level field for manufacturers and service providers.

Session 1 dealt with the nexus between Competition Regime and Trade and Investment. Session Two was on Public Procurement, Creating a level-playing field. Session Three addressed Detecting Cartels: Investigative Techniques, Leniency and Reward Programs, moderated by Chairperson, CCP, while Session Four was on Promoting Competition through Advocacy.

On the second day, the venue for the conference was shifted to CCP’s new office on Jinnah Avenue. The interaction on the second day, was not the long and boring presentations, but interactive and in the form of four Round Table discussions, relating to four consumer related topics.

The first Round Table discussion was on Deceptive Marketing Hampering Fair Trade, in which the speakers were Ms Huma Bukhari, Chairperson, Consumer Forum, Mr Aijaz of CAP and yours truly.

This was followed by RT discussions on a very interesting topic, The Scent of a Cartel, relating to how Competition Commissions can detect a cartel. The last RT discussion focused on Distorting Competition, relating to subsidies, granting of exemptions, reduction in duties and other such benefits. The experts were of the opinion, that such incentives hamper fair competition and distort the principals of providing a fair level playing field for manufacturers and service providers.

My presentation was Deceptive Marketing and Misleading Advertisements.

Helpline Trust has been working on the issue of for a number of years, as such, I explained to the learned gathering that what is prevailing in Pakistan is very different from what is accepted as a normal code of conduct in advertising and industry in developed countries, which is respected and followed in letter and in spirit. I pointed out that in Pakistan, like in other Third World countries, we have numerous laws, but they are difficult to enforce.

For instance, we have three bodies that are supposed to control and monitor the quality and contents of advertisements that are used to promote products and services.

First, we have the government-managed organization, PEMRA and then two in the private sector, namely: Pakistan Advertising Society (PAS) and Pakistan Broadcasters Association (PBA). All these three organizations have very comprehensive laws and guidelines, relating to Deceptive Marketing Practices.

 Some of these laws are: “Advertisers undertake that they will not create advertisements that are: False or misleading, visual or verbal - Claims that distort the true meaning or practicable application of statements made by professional or scientific authority - Testimonials that do not reflect the real opinions of individuals involved - Price claims that are misleading - No advertisement should mislead by inaccuracy, ambiguity, exaggeration, omission or otherwise - Statements, suggestions or pictures offensive to public decency or minority augments of the population - Advertisers should not exploit the credulity, lack of knowledge or inexperience of consumers”. These laws and guidelines, if enforced in letter and in spirit, would be very effective, but unfortunately, like other laws in the country, this is not the case, as such, we have a free for all situation.

Crooked, greedy and unscrupulous manufacturers indulge in misleading the consumers through deceptive and misleading advertisements to promote substandard and poor quality products and services, without fear of being held accountable.

To combat this malpractice, Helpline Trust has introduced the Power of One, through its Consumers Hall of Shame, which gives a picture of the product and the name of the manufacturer or service provider and supporting documents.

This produces immediate and positive results and after the third letter, the organization indulging in malpractice, takes immediate action to rectify the situation. 

Another negative factor that hampers CCP efforts, are the Stay Orders that the powerful cartels obtain from the High Court and Supreme Court of Pakistan. These SO prevents CCP from collecting the fines, which run into millions of rupees and the cartels go unpunished for years.

Therefore, I suggest that the Supreme Court of Pakistan should establish a special tribunal, consisting of a panel of senior judges and experts, which should examine each penalty or charge sheet imposed by CCP against an organization and give its judgment within three months. This judgment should be acceptable and binding to both, CCP and the organization.

Mr Lars-Gunnar Wigemark, Ambassador, European Union to Pakistan, in his inspiring, closing address at the end of the two-day Conference, urged Pakistan to enforce competition laws and requested the incoming government to enhance trade and business with India and implement competition laws to improve economic conditions in the country.

 “I have one message for the incoming government. Be inspired by the recent elections and create a truly level economic playing field for business in Pakistan. Make CCP. Give it more resources and use it to the fullest, as improved competition will be a win-win governance issue, which will benefit Pakistan and all of its consumers”. “Get rid of cartels, price-fixing, distorting subsidies and kick-backs. These are hampering both domestic economic growth and the inflow of foreign investment and trade.”

Let us hope that the new government of Mr Nawaz Sharif, combined with PTI, will take the Honorable Ambassador’s suggestions seriously, strengthen CCP and assist the organization to function without fear or favour.