On Thursday, the Indian ad world’s self-governing body issued final guidelines for influencer marketing, roughly three months after sharing draft guidelines. The final version says influencers must label branded posts if there’s a material connection between them and the advertisers, failing which, both parties shall be held accountable. Read the guidelines
The guidelines say the disclosure label should be clear, identifiable and prominent (not buried under hashtags), and specify exactly where, how and for how long these labels must appear.
They get into details such as who is defined as an influencer, what constitutes a material connection between an influencer and an advertiser, which words can be used to identify a post as a sponsored, and so on.
Influencers are further “advised to review and satisfy themselves that [they are] in a position to substantiate the claims made in the advertisement.”
To monitor potential violation of guidelines, ASCI said it has identified AI-enabled tools from Reech, a French tech provider.
ASCI collaborated with influencer marketing and content creation agency BigBang.Social for this exercise. The final guidelines were framed after taking into consideration feedback from 25 stakeholders including content creators, advertisers such as HUL, Nestle, P&G, PepsiCo, Tata Group and Star, and industry bodies such as the Internet & Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) and the Indian Beauty & Hygiene Association (IBHA).
“The spirit of the issue was accepted widely even though there were debates around execution,” said ASCI chairman Subhash Kamath.
“But there were no objections in principle and everyone was eager to bring more transparency to the digital marketing ecosystem,” he added.
Now, the nuance
Leading influencers and their marketing agencies said they welcomed most of the rules, adding that it was largely the advertisers who have been reluctant to include disclosure labels.
“We’ve got client briefs in the past where we were categorically told not to put the ‘sponsored’ tag,” said Vishnu Kaushal, a popular entertainment content creator from Chandigarh who was also consulted on the guidelines.
Disclosure labels are the only way forward for ethical marketing, Kaushal added. “It’ll also help the audience understand that this is a part of what creators do.”
A few marketers ET spoke to shared concerns over the communication and implementation of these guidelines among hundreds of thousands of creators outside tier-1 cities, especially those who don’t hire marketing agencies.
But Kaushal feels it won’t be a challenge as creators learn from other creators they follow. “It’s like a pyramid,” he said. “When top creators start abiding by this principle, others will follow, too.”
This will also apply to creators who make content in local languages, he noted. “Creation skips that barrier of language in this case.”
One of the least welcomed guidelines calls for a disclosure label to be superimposed on the video in cases where there is no accompanying text or the text is not automatically visible (like in the case of Instagram Reels).
“It seems very counterintuitive,” said Lakshmi Balasubramanian, co-founder of influencer marketing firm Greenroom. The charm of influencer marketing is to use content that has an organic flavour and brings out the essence of the influencer’s personality, she said. “Adding an in-your-face declaration on a video seems a bit detrimental.”
It’s also not clear why these guidelines should not apply to traditional celebrities as well.
As Kainaz Karmakar, another advertising veteran and chief creative officer at Ogilvy India, pointed out, “If a Bollywood star talks about a certain health product on their social media channel, shouldn’t they declare it as a paid promotion? Celebrities are the biggest influencers, right?”
separate guidelines for celebrities in advertisements, which do not include anything concrete on disclosure labels.
Aanam C, a popular influencer in the beauty category, doesn’t see why exceptions should be made for celebrities. “I’ve assumed that celebrities would come under the same magnifying glass as us simply because they’re also online influencers. Branded posts on social media are a part of their brand endorsement deals.”
These issues aside, what remains the biggest problem is the fact that ASCI’s is a self-regulatory body and its guidelines are not legally binding.
“What these guidelines do is create an overall sense of what is right or what is not, and work is created around that,” said Satbir Singh, veteran adman and founder of creative agency Thinkstr.
That being said, Singh noted that if there’s no self-regulation, the government will step in. “And that is where ASCI becomes important. If only there was a way it could get teeth.”
ASCI can ask influencers who fail to abide by the new guidelines to make changes or take the post down, depending on the situation, but cannot enforce this. “But around 95% of such cases have eventually ended with voluntary compliance in the past,” said Manisha Kapoor, secretary-general, ASCI.
Previously, however, clients and agencies have been known to have taken advantage of the time gap between raising a complaint and ASCI acting on it.
“There have been cases where the client or agency had a feeling that the competition would go to ASCI and so released a campaign on a Friday. By the time ASCI was contacted on Monday, the point was made. No one remembers retractions,” Singh said.
Despite this, various stakeholders ET spoke to said this was a good start. The guidelines would bring more transparency to the influencer marketing space, especially in categories that involve high-stake claims such as health and finance, they said.
Shortly after this story went live, we attended a Clubhouse session moderated by content creators Janice Sequeira and Scherezade Shroff where a bunch of stakeholders, including creators, ad agency executives, as well as representatives from ASCI, had joined in to discuss these guidelines.
Here’s a quick summary:
1) Most creators felt that brands/influencers may not follow the guidelines simply because they are not legally binding. Those who are claiming to abide by them now were anyway upfront about their promotional posts before the guidelines came into being.
2) A creator pointed out how laws regarding influencer marketing in New Zealand changed the landscape overnight where creators went on to add labels and hashtags to all their past sponsored posts as well.
3) They felt the redressal mechanism needs to be better communicated. And that there needs to be more clarity on how exactly an influencer is supposed to do their due diligence when a brand approaches them for collaboration.
4) Some had issues with using the disclosure label “gifted”. They felt it made something personal sound very transactional. They would prefer to use the term “PR package” instead. Yet others felt every time they put “PR package” or an equivalent disclaimer, their DMs were flooded with requests from brands eager to send them freebies — a situation they would rather avoid.
5) Followers have been instrumental in educating some creators about doing brand collaborations the right way. One of them said they have reduced skincare deals significantly just to be careful. “15 days is not enough time to evaluate a product so now I do legacy deals where I use a product for a year,” they said.
6) Influencers were relieved to know that advertisers would be held equally accountable for failing to comply with the disclosure guidelines. However, the guidelines do not solve for when a brand’s contract prohibits them from using disclosure labels.
While we didn’t have solutions to most of their concerns, we offered to be the medium through which they could flag instances of default to ASCI (since complainants cannot be anonymous). Hope it helps bring more transparency to the industry.]