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Shreoshree Chakrabarty | 26 July 2021

In the past few years, the Indian audience has been consuming online videos like never before. And due to this, there has been a steady growth in the influencer marketing industry in India. This welcomed the need for a transparent advertising ecosystem. Here comes the latest drafts guidelines by the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) in the picture. The Advertising Standards Council of India helps consumers understand social media better by ensuring that they understand which contents posted by an influencer are ads.

 

What is ASCI?

Established in 1985, the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) is a self-regulatory voluntary organization of the advertising industry in India ensuring the protection of the interests of consumers. ASCI is built with the support of four sectors of Advertising- Advertising Agencies, Advertisers, Media (including Broadcasters and the Press), and others like PR Agencies and Market Research Companies. It ensures that advertisements comply with its Code for Self-Regulation. According to these codes, advertisements need to be truthful, honest, legal, decent, and non-hazardous or harmful while observing fairness in competition.

Why is ASCI necessary?

The consumers consume the ads created by an advertiser and hence they are the audiences. The advertiser henceforth needs feedback from its audience so that he can be assured of the message has been correctly conveyed to them. In this case, if a consumer finds an advertisement inappropriate, of bad taste, or is false in its claims, they would require a body or council to whom they can share their issues and views and that body will take the appropriate actions, if necessary. Enter ASCI, serving both advertisers and the consumers as a self-regulatory body governing advertising content is the ideal medium.

Coming back to the latest guidelines issued by the ASCI, let’s know the Background and Overview of the Guidelines

ASCI released a draft set of guidelines for influencer advertising on digital media in February 2021 for stakeholders’ (including industry, digital influencers as well as consumers) consideration and comments. ASCI then announced the extension of the deadline to send in comments for the draft guidelines. It was extended from 8th March 2021 to 21st March 2021. The final Guidelines were then released and made effective from 14th June 2021.

ASCI explains influencers as “someone who has access to an audience and the power to affect their audiences’ purchasing decisions or opinions about a product, service, brand or experience, because of the influencer’s authority, knowledge, position, or relationship with their audience.” In addition to this, the guidelines have also clearly defined ‘virtual influencer’, ‘material connection’ and ‘digital media’. Click here to read the detailed guidelines issued by ASCI.

The Guidelines state that all published posts by the influencers or their representatives need to include a disclosure label according to the specifications mentioned in the Guidelines, clarifying such posts as advertisements. Further details on the identification of when there is a requirement of such disclosure have also been mentioned in the advertisement. Here comes the ‘material connection’ term as an instance between the advertiser and the influencer. ‘Material connection’, as per the Guideline, can be explained as the issuance of free products or unsolicited gifts, contests, discounts, and sweepstakes entries, trips or hotel stays, media barters, coverage, awards or any family or employment relationship, etc. If an influencer is posting about a purchase or service that they personally liked without any material connection with the advertiser shall not be bound for any disclosure, according to the Guidelines. Also, the influencer has to necessarily give disclosure in case there is any material connection involved between the two, even if the content of the post is originating independently or is an unbiased evaluation from the influencer.

Furthermore, the Guidelines have set the manner, placement, duration, and visibility of the disclosure with respect to the consumer’s eye, so that it is prominent, readily visible/audible, hard to miss, and not hidden under hashtags or links or even under show more section. The Guidelines have identified certain words as permitted disclosure labels and they include- Advertisement, Ad, Sponsored, Collaboration, Employee, Free Gift. This disclosure has to be included in the bargain of the platform’s independent disclosure tool.

The Guidelines have not left out live streams and audio media content and the specifics of these have also been laid down. These Guidelines also mandate superimposing the disclosure label upon the photo/video, for the content that does not have text (for instance- Instagram or Snapchat stories), in a manner that is clearly visible to the average consumer.

The ASCI Guidelines also suggest that the influencers have to diligently engage in any promotional advertisements and satisfy themselves that the advertiser shall be able to substantiate the claims made by the advertiser in the ads. Additionally, the Guidelines indicate that every content should be in adherence to the ASCI Code for Self-Regulation of Advertising Content in India (ASCI Code) and its guidelines and it attaches responsibility for the disclosure and the content of the posts both on the influencers as well as the advertisers.

Let us see what the experts of these digital agencies have to say about the ASCI Guidelines affecting the existing and new campaigns.

Vikram Kari, Product Head, INCA India says, “The newly introduced guidelines are a welcome initiative towards bringing some self-regulation for an otherwise unorganized industry. We believe this is a start but at the same time, we should keep reviewing these guidelines not just for effectiveness but also test them for their simplicity to enable this industry to grow. Broadly, we believe the guidelines have not had any implications on content, but as we execute more campaigns, we will get to know the practical challenges, if any. While bigger brands have always adhered to the ‘paid partnership’ disclosure, the publishing of these guidelines will ensure adherence by all clients across formats.”

Himanshu Arya, founder, and CEO- Grapes Digital commented, In the past month, we have perceived both pros and cons of the influencer guidelines. Many influencers (who have massive followers) have started complying with the guidelines, but then you will also notice famous bloggers/influencers flouting the policies. The way influencer marketing has been witnessing steady growth, it has become quite important to bring transparency. There is a positive impact, but we can’t see the results in just a span of one months’ time, there is a need for awareness. There are macro, micro, and nano influencers who collaborate with brands in which many of them are unaware of how to follow the guidelines. The policies are very naïve at this stage, but as things become clear in time, they will be regulated on a larger scale.

Agencies have started issuing clear instructions to influencers that the guidelines should be ensured, even many brands have started understanding it but many are still conscious as they feel the engagement rate will see a decline. I am hopeful that in the coming six months, things would be clear, we all have to focus on the correct implementation in which brands and content creators are on the same page then this will solve the purpose to a great extent.

In the US this has become a practice which is being followed by all influencers and if one will not abide by the rules then they have to face the penalty.”

Santosh Patil, Associate Director- Key Accounts, TheSmallBigIdea added, “Since the launch of the ASCI guidelines, influencer marketing has become more transparent and has been able to build trust amongst the audience, giving them clarity by differentiating between brand collaborations and user-generated content. However, with the ‘Skip-Ad’ mindset amongst consumers, content tagged as paid, is witnessing a drop in views and engagement, thus affecting a brand’s exposure. While unpaid collaboration in the form of barter and giveaways is well within the ASCI guidelines, is not a sustainable approach for all brands. Guerrilla marketing, an approach that brands usually took, too is now marginalized.

While these are still early days, the guidelines and its challenges have resulted in brands creating a sharper plan that caters to their requirement and in the process have improved the quality of content.”

As the reach and influence of the social media influencers on the internet keep increasing steadily, there was a need for an oversight in the manner in which they operate and make commercial gains, because the parent ASCI Code just included the regulations governing ‘celebrity’ advertising and not digital specific regulations. These Guidelines emerge as the new-age marketing tool for almost all types of brands globally.

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