With an aim to enable consumers to easily recognise promotional content on digital platforms, the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) has released draft guidelines for influencer marketing.
The industry body has sought feedback from the industry on the draft after which it will issue the final guidelines, which will have to be followed by both brands and influencers.
Speaking to BestMediaInfo.com, Manisha Kapoor, Secretary-General, ASCI, said, “One of the biggest challenges of digital media is that the lines between what is content and what is advertising is blurred. Consumers need to know that if a video is being uploaded, is it editorial content or is this advertisement.”
“The idea is to make this very transparent for consumers and for them to be able to distinguish and recognise advertising on social media. These guidelines basically require influencers, who are a growing tribe in India, to disclose that the communication they are putting out is an advertisement,” she added.
According to the guidelines, the advertisements must be obviously distinguishable by the average consumer from editorial and independent user-generated content, to prevent the audience from being confused between the two. Therefore, a disclosure label must be added from the list of approved labels. The guidelines also suggest the disclosures must be upfront. “Within the first two lines of a post on any given social platform, such that a consumer need not click on see more or have to scroll under the fold.”
According to Kapoor, ASCI’s main role is to prevent misleading advertisements. If people are not aware that a said piece of content is actually an advertorial, it can be considered misleading. “Influencers in our country are again a section that is growing very rapidly; many of them are young people coming into this segment. The idea really is to make sure that even they know that when you are making an advertisement or influencing on behalf of a brand, you owe it to your audiences to reveal that,” she said.
She said ASCI has been working on the guidelines for the past three months with a task force that had lawyers and people from the influencer industry. They had dialogues with Google. Kapoor said they interviewed people from the influencer industry to understand how they engage with their audiences. “We have taken note of what some other countries are doing in terms of digital guidelines for influencers as it is a phenomenon that is present worldwide and all markets are seeing activities in the branded space by influencers,” she added.
Asked how brands are reacting to the guidelines, she said from the initial conversations they had with advertisers as well as influencers, who have been a part of the development of the guidelines, the response has been extremely positive.
“We are glad that this is coming out because it brings the influencers together and gives them responsibility. It is a growing industry and for the industry to come around a particular topic is a great milestone in the evolution of that industry itself. I think we had an extremely positive response and we hope that these guidelines are well accepted as we are building a very collaborative approach in the development of these guidelines and also in educating the influencers about these guidelines to make the industry responsible.”
How will the guidelines be promoted to reach the consumers?
ASCI has been carrying out multiple outreach programmes and speaking to organisations that represent the influencers in the dissemination of the guidelines. Speaking about how these guidelines will be promoted among the general public, Kapoor said, “We will put these guidelines out for public consumption and they will be available on public platforms like our own website; media like you who talk about the guidelines also helps to put it out there for public consumption. We have influencer bodies that will have some leading influencers talking about these guidelines to the public. A lot of people will come together and help us make this reach the right people: members of advertising, members of the public that will also help us get their feedback on it. We will be putting out an email address where they can write and share their views and their comments.”
Kapoor said both influencers and advertisers will come under these guidelines. “Essentially we have the advertiser always responsible for any communication that goes out which is authorised by them. The influencers also, because they are content creators and it will be their account through which it is published. Therefore they have a say in the editorial content of that account. Hence, both influencers, as well as advertisers, are going to be covered under this. Agencies don’t really have too much of a role to play, the influencer is particularly the one who is creating the content. In any case, even for traditional media, we don’t look at the agency because the onus lies on the advertiser. Therefore, they know what the product can deliver,” she explained.
What action will be taken against influencers and advertisers who break the code?
“When we receive a consumer complaint as per our normal process, we will write to the influencer and the advertiser, asking them to justify the piece of communication and why it has violated the guidelines. Based on their responses, it will be taken to the consumer complaint council which will review the responses. Then they will be let off if they have not violated ASCI codes,” Kapoor said
Asked if it will hamper creativity that the digital space allows advertisers and influencers to communicate, she said, “With the ability to influence millions of people, if it is done in an untruthful way I don’t think that any good influencer will need to do anything that is unethical. If you need to lie in order to be creative, that speaks about the quality of the creativity. We have seen thousands of ads over the years that have been very creative but you don’t have to mislead consumers to do be creative.”
Asked how ASCI will be able to quantify who qualifies as an influencer as the influencer community growing every day, she said, “Essentially anyone can be an influencer but the key thing is saying that when you have a message that promotes a brand, and it is paid through cash or some other benefits, you need to disclose that. That’s all that the guidelines are trying to say.”
What are the other aspects of the guidelines?
While the guidelines focus on distinguishing advertorial content from editorial, there are other aspects of the guidelines. According to Kapoor, a lot of social media platforms allow users to apply filters that can be used to enhance the results of a product, which is misleading. “A lot of social media allows you to put filter but where there is a product linked; for example, if you say this product will make the hair shine two times, and you use a filter to make it look shinier, that is misleading. So filters used to exaggerate the performance of a product will be considered misleading.”
When asked how the filters will be identified, she said whenever they receive a complaint about a filter being used, they will write to the advertiser. “The consumer has the right to complain but the advertiser and the influencers also have the right to defend what they have done.
“They will come back with their arguments that go to the consumer complaints council, which has representatives from doctors, lawyers. They look at the arguments and the evidence put out by the advertiser, hence every side has a chance to defend what they have done,” she explained.
ASCI is asking influencers to back their claims about the product with substantial and scientific data. “If someone is telling you that their product will make something two times better, then the influencer can ask the advertiser if they have any data to prove that. We are asking the influencers to do due diligence and ask about technical details before they talk about the product.”
Can we expect stricter guidelines for content marketing space?
“I think this is the first step, I certainly don’t feel this would be the last step. However, this was a big gap that existed today that we wanted to address. We will continue to monitor the space and place guidelines where they are necessary. The biggest gap in the digital world today is that people are not able to recognise ads anymore. This guideline bridges that gap to a significant extent. We will continue to work on the digital space because it’s a large space,” said Kapoor.