The ASCI, Advertising Standards Council of India (1), India’s self-regulatory voluntary organization for advertising, rolled out a set of draft guidelines for influencers promotion on social media platforms, considering the rise in social media malpractice and fraud cases by some influencers.
Social media content creators are gaining immense popularity, and brands are roping them to enhance their visibility across several platforms, including Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. It is also worth highlighting that advertising with influencers often costs less compared to conventional advertising solutions across print and television mediums. Moreover, it also helps brands to market their offerings in a more personal manner.
However, in light of the persisting hazard of fake news across social media platforms where a fact check of claims is not present, officials have deemed it necessary to have certain influencer advertising guidelines to protect consumers’ interest.
The Draft Guidelines
According to ASCI, the lines between advertisements and content are turning blurry. Hence, it has become critical that customers must be able to distinguish between a promotion.
It added that it becomes misleading when consumers see promotional messages without realizing their commercial intent. And it is a violation of clause 1.4, misleading by omission, and clause 1.5, abuse of consumer trust or exploiting consumer lack of experience or knowledge.
The draft guidelines need influencer advertising posts to include a proper disclosure form such as #ad, #collab, #promo, #partnership, and #sponsored. Social media influencers need to add disclosure in the first two lines of the post’s disclosure on social media platforms. If there is no description, they need to disclose it either on the ad’s photo or video.
In the case of audio content with no post description, they need to clearly announce the disclosure at the beginning and the end of the audio post.
Moreover, social media influencers would need to use their due diligence about any technical claim they make in the advertisement. It includes correspondence with the brand owner or advertiser and confirming that the specific claims they are making in the advertisement can be scientifically substantiated.
According to guidelines, social media influencers cannot use filters on images and videos for posts claiming that a brand positively impacts, making teeth whiter, hair shinier, etc.
ASCI is inviting feedback on the draft influencer advertising guidelines until the 8th of March, 2021. It would issue the final guidelines based on the feedback and inputs by 31st of March, 2021.
Notably, the final influencer advertising guidelines would apply to all promotional posts published on and after the 15th of April 2021 (2).
Indian Influencer Industry
The ASCI has released the draft guidelines for influencer advertising on social media platforms to enable consumers to recognize promotional content on these digital platforms easily.
We all know that the Indian influencer industry is growing rapidly. According to AdLift, a digital marketing agency (3), the Indian influencer market is estimated at 45 to 150 million USD a year compared to the 1.75 billion USD international market.
The Indian influencer industry is going mainstream within the advertising arena, and there are expectations that it would only grow more as more Indians would go online.
There is no wonder that brands across different areas associate with social media influencers to get across their marketing messages. Hence, most of the influencers’ posts are promotions, and consumers can’t identify them as such. Such non-disclosure is a disservice to customers and is misleading.
ASCI, keeping with the shifting marketing paradigm, has closely followed advertising content on social media platforms. Last September, ASCI collaborated with TAM Media Research to monitor over 3,000 social media platforms for misleading marketing messages (4).
With the guidelines, ASCI is looking to assist consumers, content creators, and brands and ensure that all stakeholders’ interests are preserved via a self-regulatory approach.
According to the ASCI’s Trust in Advertising report, released on December 2020 (5), ads on social media platforms viewership is virtually the same in rural and metro areas, 82% and 83%, respectively. And considering the surge in digital advertising consumption, the disclosure guidelines for influencers in the country were the need of the hour.
It is worth highlighting that ASCI released the guidelines in a collaborative effort with social media influencers. It had teamed up with BigBang.Social, a leading social storytelling marketplace (6) to get the country’s leading social media influencers’ views and suggestions on board.
While commenting on the recent development, Subhash Kamath, the Chairman of ASCI (7), stated the digital space is humongous but promotional content is often indistinguishable from regular posts. And consumers have the right to differentiate promotional content from regular content easily.
He further added that the guidelines would help consumers recognize promotional content and offer social media influencers guidance. The ASCI team is looking forward to receiving feedback from industry stakeholders, such as more influencers. It would help them make the digital space more responsible for all.
The BigBang.Social Founding Partner KWAN and CEO Dhruv Chitgopekar (8) stated that they realized the requirement for a responsible advertising ecosystem for influencers, fair and transparent expression, and ethical practices promotion.
Chitgopekar further added that these guidelines would benefit consumers and social media influencers. We firmly believe that these guidelines are also necessary for social media platforms. The Bigbang.Social is delighted to collaborate with a self-regulatory body that wants to be inclusive of all stakeholders (9).
According to Manisha Kapoor, the secretary-general of ASCI, the new draft guidelines’ mainstay is to identify and label upfront that the said post is an advertisement. It means that influencers need to tell consumers that they are watching an ad and not content. The disclosure needs to be in a prominent position (10).
Ready Reckoner for Specific Social Media Channels
Instagram: Social media influencers need to include a disclosure label in the title above the photo or beginning of the text that shows. If they are only uploading an image, the image itself must have the label.
Facebook: Social media influencers must include the disclosure in the title of the post or entry. If they are only uploading a video or an image, the image or video itself must have the label. For example, the FB Story.
Twitter: Influencers must include the disclosure tag or label at the beginning of the message body as a tag.
Pinterest: Influencers must include the disclosure label at the message’s beginning.
Youtube and other Video Platforms: Influencers need to include the label in the title or post description.
Vlog: Social media influencers need to overlay the disclosure label while talking about the promotion.
Snapchat: Influencers need to include the disclosure label in the message body at the beginning as a tag.
Blog: Social media influencers need to include the disclosure label in the post’s title.
The Impact on Influencers
According to Kapoor, the new guidelines would promote transparency and trust between the influencers and the audience.
According to the Quint Report (11), influencers on social media platforms, for the long run and genuinely want to build their audiences, ensure that an influencer is acting responsibly. She further added that even responses to the feedback are also very encouraging.
Anita Das, a fashion blogger, stated that Brands want influencers to promote their offerings, and they also wish that it should not look like an advertisement. It is a form of their marketing strategies. Moreover, when influencers do not use any disclosures, it makes them connect with the audience even better since the moment they display such revelations, the audience loses their interest.
According to Amin Jazayeri, another social media influencer, the new influencer advertising guidelines is a move in the right direction. He added that it is a standard practice in countries like the USA where influences must use #ad in their promotional post. It prevents content from being misleading, and the audience also knows the difference between a paid promotion and a genuine endorsement of a product and a service.
Moreover, according to the new guidelines, influencers now need to do their due diligence about any performance or technical claims they made, such as 3x better results, fastest, speed, etc. There are expectations that the proposal would boost the brand and influencer credibility (12).
Notably, ASCI will issue a notice to both influencer and brand owner for violation of any guideline in a consumer complaint or case of a potentially objectionable advertisement. In the case of disappearing posts (e.g., Instagram Stories), a screenshot with timestamp would serve as prima-facie evidence of the published advertisement (13).
Impact on Influencer Ad Spends
Marketers are counting on a marginal drop-in influencer ad spend due to the new guidelines coming into drive. However, there are expectations that this issue may not change drastically.
According to Praanesh Bhuvaneswar, The founder and CEO of the influencer advertising and marketing platform, Qoruz (14), there may be a temporary impact on influencer ad spends by approximately 10 to 15%.
Certain brands do follow marketing without revealing that it is an advertisement. It usually happens with immature brands or those trying to push fake content. However, after the guidelines, people would mature beyond that, and advertising spends would go up again.
Bhuvaneswar added that manufacturers’ spending on influence had been going up considerably since producing content material with businesses. Placing ad budgets for marketing does not appear interesting to a lot of manufacturers. They now prefer to get the specified attendance and content material from influences at a fraction of the price.
Several mainstream agencies are now setting up influence strategy, and execution teams in-house, added Bhuvaneswar.
Amit Tripathi, MD at IdeateLabs, an impartial digital company (15), stated that the new guidelines would impact the monetization that influencers could make from their digital footprint.
Tripathi further explained that we couldn’t imagine Amitabh Bachchan or other Bollywood celebrities acknowledging that the post is sponsored. They endorse brands like others. However, with these guidelines, whether an influencer is big or small, everyone would have to acknowledge the influencer clout’s commercial side.
Tripathi believes that even though it is great news from a consumer perspective, it is not much from an influencer’s perspective.
The CEO and Co-founder of Monk Entertainment, Viraj Seth (16), mentioned that the ASCI guidelines would not result in a drastic change in influencers’ marketing and advertising spending.
Moreover, Seth believes that the audience has always been smart enough to differentiate between organic content and a paid partnership with a brand. The new guidelines would only push for this differentiation to become more official and binding.
Moreover, we believe that it would now become crucial for manufacturers and brands to utilize natural influencers. Organic influencers would realize decent traction, and even though it would become more tedious to reach out to conscious viewers, it would be more impactful.
What are Industry Leaders Saying about ASCI’s Influencer Marketing Guidelines?
According to Ambika Sharma, Founder and MD of Pulp Strategy (17), ASCI has released draft guidelines for influencer advertising on social media platforms to enable customers to recognize promotional content easily.
ASCI is looking to assist consumers, brands, and content creators with the new guidelines and ensure that all stakeholders’ interests are preserved via a self-regulatory approach. The digital space is huge, and one often has trouble recognizing promotional content from regular posts.
Sharma added that these guidelines would help consumers find promotional content and help social media influencers.
According to Ankita Chauhan, the Group Head Strategy at Tonic Worldwide (18), influencers promote content a lot of time as a part of a larger story and seed it subtly. It makes the whole placement rather organic.
However, she believes that consumers have the full right to know what is organic and paid. It is quite basic. She further added that she has seen several influencers labeling sponsored content, and she thinks that industry bodies mandating it mainly benefits consumers at large.
While fully supporting the ASCI guidelines for influencer advertising, Ashwini Deshpande, a Co-founder, and Director at Elephant Design (19), stated that influencers garner a large following because of consistent and aligned content for the target audience. If a social media influencer wishes to continue getting followers, they must stay honest and interesting.
Deshpande added that Indian influencer marketing had reached a critical mass, and it is the right time to have clear ASCI guidelines that protect consumers from misleading content.
ASCI guidelines, which are presently open for public discussion, have transparency at their core, and the advertising industry should welcome it. The guideline has also rightfully specified labeling for each social media channel which would assist the consumer from getting misguided by influencer advertisements.
According to SoCheers Director Rajni Daswani (20), the Indian influencer marketing industry has reached 100 million USD valuation. Today, all kinds of brands, big or small, are benefiting from influencers and content creators to drive their business objectives.
We can’t deny that the industry has been unregulated so far. We have also seen several brands sneakily getting away with things that we wouldn’t have considered ethical if they promoted their offerings on a TVC or an OOH.
Hence, the new ASCI guidelines would serve as a good guardrail in such cases. On the flip side, the popularity of social media influencer marketing in a brand’s marketing budget is mainly because of the communication flexibility, which allows them to showcase the benefits of using their products or services in different and subtle ways.
Daswani further stated that digital consumers today are smart and understand the difference between an organic and an advertisement. Hence, brands are willing to pay extra to get their promotional material to look as organic as possible.
However, with these guidelines in place, we may see the overall engagement and reach with influencers dive and witness the same status quo as a paid media ad on social media platforms.
She believes that even though these guidelines are much needed, they should not be extremely stringent to avoid forming a dent in the overall influencer marketing industry that is growing faster than ever.
Quite contradictory, Kunal Kishore Sinha, the co-founder of ClanConnect (21), believes that the new guidelines would unlock a wealth of new opportunities for the fast-evolving influencer marketing segment and offer positive results for the segment in the long run.
Kishore further added that when a major industry body such as ASCI deems a requirement for influencers and influencer marketing community guidelines, it indicates how the market has evolved and has assumed a mainstream position in the larger advertising segment.
These new guidelines would streamline the industry and offer a direction and ensure that there is an additional sense of social responsibility amongst the influencer community.
Regardless, he welcomed the ASCI move for the industry and believes it would guide new and established content creators and social media influencers. Now, they would be more mindful about the kind of content they would bring to their target audience.
He believes that it is an extremely positive move from the ASCI, and the new guidelines would act as a catalyst for more organized and structured platforms to set new benchmarks for the industry as a whole.
Ankit Agarwal, the founder of Do Your Thing (22), stated that countries such as the USA and UK have issued regulations years back about explicit dos and don’t for social media influencers. It is also high time for India to do the same for the country’s influencer marketing industry.
Agarwal further added that the lack of guidelines further ignited damaging content across all digital platforms in the country while also chipping away the hard-earned trust in creators. When digital consumers know that an ad is an ad and content is merely organic content, one of the draft rules, the confidence in a creator or an influencer, is not broken.
He believes that when content creators are authentic, including being straightforward about sponsored content, they create more impact and deliver deeper engagement. We would be finally able to move the needle on streamlining the sector, which has been unregulated for so long, with this ASCI framework that would hopefully come into play.
While taking the new ASCI guidelines positively, Amol Roy, the founder of Shutter Cast (23), stated that while digital media has several benefits, it has its own challenges.
Roy believes that one of the biggest hurdles for digital marketers is that consumers can often not differentiate between editorial content and advertisements. Hence, the new ASCI guidelines are necessary to ensure clear differentiation and segregation.
He further added that influencers are a growing community. It makes their inclusion in the guidelines necessary since their role as mediators would help communicate the messaging, whether the content is organic or advertisement.
The influencer base is growing posthaste. The new guideline aims to fortify the disclosure of the kind of content initially so that the target audience is conscious and scrolls further accordingly and not deceptively.
The new ASCI influencer marketing guidelines will help the brands extend clear communication and uplift influencer networking in the country. Such a step will offer them more endowments and reliability. Roy hopes that the audiences would well receive the guidelines and the objective behind their implementations are realized.