ASCI’s draft influencer guidelines: Overcautious, but long pending, industry reacts

The Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) has issued draft guidelines for influencer advertising on digital media. ASCI has invited industry, digital influencers and consumers to scrutinise the guidelines before they are issued on March 31, 2021. They will be applicable to all promotional posts after April 15, 2021.

ASCI defines an influencer as “someone who has access to audience and the power to affect their audience’s purchasing decisions or opinions about a product, service, brand, or experience. An influencer can intervene in an editorial context or in collaboration with a brand to publish content.”

Also read: ASCI frames guidelines for influencer advertising on digital media

The 10 guidelines issued by ASCI encourage two practices by influencers – 1) disclosure of advertising content, and 2) due diligence regarding technical or performance claims . Manisha Kapoor, Secretary General, ASCI, said, “To draft the guidelines, we had to go back all the way to the definition of advertising. We believe advertising is any communication authorised by the advertiser by establishing a material connection between influencer and advertiser. Incentives like payments, gifts, media barter, and discounts that affects the credibility of representation that is being made, are considered material payment and establish a piece of communications as advertising.”

The onus of disclosure is left solely upon the influencer/ publishing account and the advertiser. In case of a virtual influencer, the onus of disclosure is upon the advertiser.

ASCI has recommended disclosure labels like #ad, #collab, #promo, #sponsored, #partnership. The guidelines mandate that the disclosure needs to be upfront, prominent, appropriate to the channel and suitable for all potential devices.

Influencers are also responsible for their own due diligence. If they make technical claims with regard to product performance, they should ask the advertiser if these claims can be established scientifically. This is even more important in light of the Consumer Protection Act, 2019, which casts a duty upon a person advertising a product or service (endorser) to be certain of the claims made in such advertisement in relation to the inter alia standard quality or performance or the product/ service. Endorsers must ensure that their claims are not false or misleading.

If endorsers are found engaging in misleading or false advertising, the law can direct them to discontinue/ modify their representation, but furthermore, the new law may impose a monetary penalty capped at Rs 10 lakh and has the authority to prohibit the endorser from making any future endorsements for up to a year.

“If you look at the Consumer Protection Act (CPA), they have said endorsers not celebrities. Even non-celebrity endorsers could be under the purview of the CPA. We have requested the Government to make clarifications to distinguish between digital influencers and celebrity endorsers. As it stands today, anyone could be an endorser,” remarks ASCI’s Kapoor.

Apart from misleading claims, ASCI have also made provisions for misleading visual representations. For example, an influencer may claim that a particular brand of toothpaste makes teeth whiter or a skin cream removes pimples overnight. These claims should not be exaggerated by using filters available on social platforms. ASCI have recommended that influencers avoid using filters in social media advertisements if they exaggerate the effect of the claim.

In the case of a complaint, ASCI will handle the redressal by issuing a notice to both brand owner and influencer. The self-regulatory body has its own suo moto surveillance monitoring 3,000 digital platforms. In the case of disappearing posts, a screenshot with a timestamp would suffice as prima facie evidence of the advertising being published.

“We will embark on a massive education outreach program with the influencers. A lot of influencers are not traditional marketers. Many of them are very young. The idea is to grow them as brand by being more responsible. The priority right now is to address consumer complaints and educate influencers,” concludes Kapoor.

Most influencers fall between the age bracket of 18-30 and come from metros like Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru and Kolkata. A digital influencer may have anywhere between 1,000 to one million followers. Influencer marketing platform, StarNgage reports that there are 27,977 such influencers in India.  

Industry Reactions

Sanjyot Keer, Chef and Founder at Your Food Lab:

“Currently, even before the announcement by ASCI, major platforms like Instagram, Facebook and YouTube already have norms in place to identify branded content so that the announcement does not change the labelling process of branded content as such. There are ‘paid partnership’, ‘branded content’ and ‘includes paid promotion’ tags on the platforms, respectively. If a content creator does not use the tags, the content is flagged and pulled down; often content strikes are also put in place by the platform against the creator.

So, there is a system already in place by these platforms and if on other platforms such a system is not in place, the platforms should be advised to do so to regulate the usage of the tags/ labels and not the content creator, which makes it much easier to regulate branded content. Different rules for different content types and platforms would be very difficult to follow and even difficult to regulate as drafted by the ASCI.”

Atul Hegde, Co-founder, Rainmaker Venture:

“My first reactions on the guidelines itself, it is trying to be too overcautious to the point of being intrusive for the viewer or reader. A simple callout, which specifies ‘this is a paid partnership’ is good enough and also an internationally accepted norm. The bigger challenge with so many specific guidelines is the implementation of it. We have seen how it’s been a challenge for ASCI in the past to deal with surrogate advertising, hope this does not go that route also.”

Rajni Daswani, Director at SoCheers:

Influencer Marketing is a $100 million industry in India now, and brands of all kinds – big or small – are benefiting from using influencers and content creators to drive their business objectives. The fact that it’s been unregulated so far, we have seen some brands sneakily get away with things that would not be considered ethical if it were to be shown in a TVC or an OOH. The guidelines will serve as a good guardrail in these cases.

However, on the flip side, the popularity of influencer marketing in a brand’s marketing budget is due to the flexibility of communication that allows them to showcase the benefits of their products and services in different ways without it looking very promotional. Digital consumers today are smart enough to understand what an advert is versus what is organic, and hence brands are willing to pay more to get their promotional material to look as organic as possible. With these guidelines kicking in, we might see the overall engagement and reach with influencers drop and might see it get the same status quo as a paid media ad on digital. I think while these guidelines are necessary, they should not be extremely stringent so as to avoid creating a dent in the overall influencer marketing industry that is growing at a faster pace than ever.”

Viraj Sheth, Co-Founder & CEO, Monk Entertainment:

“It was long pending that the Indian influencer marketing industry followed suit and implemented a framework similar to the Federal Trade Commission guidelines in the West.”

Neha Puri, CEO and Founder, VavoDigital:

“I don’t think this change is intended to constrain creativity, but in a way further build trust in the consumer’s mind that a product being promoted holds that same importance in the life of the influencer.

The UAE in 2019 saw the potential in the influencer marketing industry and launched a National Media Council influencer marketing license.”

Chaitanya Ramalingegowda, Director & Co-founder,

“Given that brands and influencers are required to do a thorough due diligence about aspects like using filters and technical or performance claims made by a brand, it is likely to instil a sense of accountability and provide clarity to customers.”

Ambika Sharma, MD & Founder, Pulp Strategy:

“The influencer industry is growing fast. According to digital marketing agency AdLift, India’s influencer market is estimated at $75-$150 million a year as compared to the global market of $1.75 billion.

So, much of what influencers post is promotional and a lot of it is not identified as such. Such non-disclosure is a disservice to consumers and is misleading. With the guidelines, ASCI will assist consumers, brands and content creators to ensure all stakeholders’ interests are preserved through a self-regulatory approach. The digital space is huge and promotional content is often indistinguishable from regular posts. Consumers have the right to easily recognise promotional content. These guidelines will help the consumers to identify promotional content and also guide digital influencers. These guidelines will benefit the consumers and the digital influencers.”

Ankita Chauhan, Group Head Strategy, Tonic Worldwide:

“A lot of time, the content is promoted as a part of the larger story and seeded in subtly, making the whole placement look rather organic. However, consumers have full right to know what is paid and what is organic. It’s quite basic. I’ve observed several influencers labelling sponsored content and I think industry bodies making it a mandate only benefits the consumers at large.”

Ankit Agarwal, Founder, Do Your Thng (DYT):

“USA’s FTC and UK’S ASA both issued regulations years back outlining explicit do’s and don’ts for influencers. It was high time influencer marketing in India followed the same path.

The lack of guidelines gave more oxygen to damaging content, and it chipped away the hard-earned trust in creators. When consumers know an ad is an ad or content just that – mere organic content, which is one of the rules in the draft: upfront labelling on ads; the confidence in a creator is not broken.

When creators are authentic, including being straightforward about sponsored content, they make more impact and deliver deeper engagement. That’s why I have been vocal about the necessity for the entire niche to abide by advertising rules from day one.

With this framework from ASCI, which hopefully comes into play in April, we finally move the needle on streamlining the sector that has been unorganised for far too long.”

Jo Broner, WIBA Spokesperson (Paris)

"At the heart of it, ASCI is recognizing the digital influencer space as part of the mainstream industry now, which is very good news for the influencers. It is going to build more trust between the artists and their audience with increased transparency. It also means the marketers have to channelize verifiable information and not unverifiable marketing claims. Influencers connect with curated communities, who listen to them for the credibility they bring, so they have an inherent moral responsibility to not breach the trust of their audience, ASCI is bolstering it with new laws, and that is going to bring in due discipline in the environment, so it's a welcome move."

Kunal Kishore Sinha, Co-founder, ClanConnect

"ASCI’s newly issued guidelines for influencer marketing will unlock a wealth of new opportunities for the fast-evolving segment that will result in positive outcomes for the sector in the long run. When a major industry body such as the ASCI deems that there is a need to introduce guidelines for influencers and the influencer marketing community, it shows how the market has evolved and has assumed a mainstream stature in the larger advertising space. These guidelines will not only streamline the space and offer a direction but also ensure that there is an added sense of social responsibility amongst the influencer community.

Needless to say, we welcome this move by the ASCI for the segment as it will act as a guiding light for new and established content creators, who will now be more mindful of the kind of content that they are bringing to their target audiences. An extremely positive move from the ASCI, these guidelines will act as a catalyst for more organized and structured platforms such as ClanConnect to set new benchmarks for the industry as a whole. Platforms such as ours will play a major role in assisting content creators in navigating through the various regulations and conform to them without any inadvertent missteps. With ASCI introducing these guidelines, the influencer marketing segment also joins the league of recognized and celebrated domains of the advertising ecosystem and indicates further growth and evolution for this space."

Neel Gogia, Co-Founder, IPLIX Media

I feel this is an initiative in the right direction, but it still needs some refinements; so that it does not affect the quality of the content which the influencers are creating. Firstly, I feel every platform needs a different outlay. Influencers will slowly need to modify their content, making sure that they are able to match these guidelines, but the interesting factor would be that how they will communicate this to the audience. Also brands, with the help of agencies and internal teams will have to come up with creative routes, so that they can still follow these guidelines and still get similar or even better results by following these guidelines. So, everything depends on how it has been communicated.

Dharika Merchant, COO, WORD and Alchemy Group

"The guidelines issued by ASCI is a positive step towards regulating the industry, since these directives will primarily require all promotional posts to be more transparent. The industry gets introduced to new brand and a new influencer on almost a daily basis, thereby making it difficult for the consumers to make an informed decision. With these regulations, consumers will now be able to easily identify between an advertisement or organic content. We welcome this change and are excited to see how this transforms the industry for good. This will enable both brands and influencers to now work more creatively to produce content that helps the brand and the audience."


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