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Interview: ASCI’s Secretary General on the ad regulator’s draft influencer guidelines

The Advertising Standards Council of India on Monday announced draft guidelines for social media influencer marketing, inviting public comment until March 8 on them. This follows draft guidelines from the Ministry of Consumer Affairs in September last year that had some rules and restrictions on what influencers and celebrity sponsors could and couldn’t do. The guidelines by ASCI essentially say:

  1. Advertising by influencers must be disclosed by picking from labels provided by ASCI.
  2. The label/disclosure must be disclosed transparently and prominently.
  3. The label must be in English, or in the language of the content; in the latter case, it must be understood by consumers easily.
  4. Blanket disclosures in “About” section or profile of influencer are insufficient.
  5. In case of images, the label should be put on top of the picture.
  6. For videos without a caption, the label must be displayed and prominent for a significant portion of the video.
  7. For audio, disclosures should be at the beginning and end of the content.
  8. Filters cannot be used for cosmetic products if they exaggerate the effects of said products.
  9. It is recommended that influencer ad contracts contain clauses on disclosure and due diligence.

We spoke to ASCI Secretary General Manisha Kapoor on the guidelines. Google was a part of the team that worked on the initial draft, along with some advertisers, Kapoor said, adding that the council will now solicit comments from the government, industry, and the general public. An edited transcript of the interaction follows.

MediaNama: Why have guidelines for influencers?

Manisha Kapoor: People are consuming more and more advertising on digital media. A survey we did on trust in advertising showed that consumption of ads online is quite high both in cities and rural areas. So this is clearly becoming a mainstream way for people to consume advertising. The challenge is content versus advertising; differentiating between what is paid promotion and what is organic content is very difficult for consumers. If a communication online is sponsored by a brand, consumers have a right to know. Ads on social media may not even look like ads, so we decided these guidelines were needed.

MediaNama: What inputs have you had from stakeholder consultations so far?

Manisha Kapoor: It’s been a journey of discovery for ASCI as well, into the nuances of the digital advertising world. We’ve had to actually take a look at the definition of advertising itself. It’s easy for us to know what is advertising in other media, but that is not true in the case of digital media.

What really came as a pleasant discovery for ASCI was that when we spoke to influencers directly and to their representatives, we found that influencers are actually very keen to have a certain set of guidelines and directions on how they should interact with brands, what are the dos and don’ts and what they can basically say to their consumers. Influencers, in fact, are very welcoming to these guidelines and they want to collaborate and they want to make sure that they’re doing things in a responsible way.

It was a big challenge for the team that was sitting together on these guidelines to cover most of the things that we would like to while keeping it open enough for new formats which will also come in. At least the principle of our efforts has been covered in these guidelines.

MediaNama: Traditional advertisers are a relatively organised industry and lend themselves to self-regulation more easily. How do you plan on incentivizing influencers to comply?

Manisha Kapoor: We are looking at this as a collaboration between us and influencers and are going along with what’s new, what is different, and how this industry really works. So I think in that sense, there is a lot of discussion which is happening with ASCI.

ASCI has always had a very, very high compliance rate of over 98 percent. And that is the result of years of work and awareness campaigns and convincing people on why self-regulation is the way to go. And I think even with influencers, we believe that this is an industry which will see some consolidation, will see certain kinds of norms developing. And we want to be there in that conversation. We want responsibility to become one plank around which this industry comes together. We’re seeing very good early signs of industry wanting to do that.

The idea is not to go after the influencers. The idea really is to educate them, to make them aware, to make them understand the importance of self-regulation and to subscribe to it willingly.

MediaNama: Do you see anything India-specific that merits a difference in approach when it comes to influencer marketing? Is there something that is different about this market that you feel is worth approaching uniquely?

Manisha Kapoor: About 95% of what we are doing would be applicable globally in the sense that this is a media which behaves in some similar ways across the world.

For India, one thing that is always unique is language. We put in a provision for language of disclosure, saying that it either needs to be in English or in the language of the advertisement, but in a way that is understood easily by the consumers. So if someone is doing an advertisement in Tamil or Telugu, for them to use words which are easily understood as advertisements is important — just because it’s a local language version doesn’t mean that every word has to be translated literally, as that can result in a less understood word than ‘advertisement’.

We have also limited the number of disclosure labels. In a lot of countries, they say that the disclosure label is really at the discretion of the brand and the influencer. We’ve given a choice of five disclosure labels because we feel that there is a need to build awareness around certain disclosure labels. If we leave it very open, we’ll have companies coming up with ‘creative’ disclosure labels which consumers may not understand completely.

For example, some companies want influencers to use #spon (sponsored), and we don’t know whether consumers will understand that commonly or not. We want to build raise awareness around the ways in which consumers can identify advertising. So at this point of time, we have these five labels from which brands and influencers can pick. This list is subject to review because there could be new ways of disclosure which may become more mainstream.

MediaNama: The biggest platforms like YouTube and a lot of the short video platforms already have some form of policies in place for influencers. How have conversations with those stakeholders gone?

Manisha Kapoor: Google was part of the team that was building these guidelines for us. So they’ve been pretty much part of these conversations. The idea is: how do we make sure that influencers and these new kinds of brands and new kinds of marketers all come together on the plank of responsibility and understand their obligations to be responsible to the brands they represent, as well as to the audiences who are following them? So we have had very, very positive kind of conversations. Platforms are supportive of what we’re doing.

MediaNama: You mentioned Google was working with you on framing some of these guidelines. Who else participated in the initial draft?

Manisha Kapoor: We for example had BigBang.Social, which represented influencers and what they were doing; we also reached out before these guidelines were submitted, to four or five companies that work a lot with influencers. Some of the bigger advertisers have seen these guidelines and given their inputs as part of the consultative process. We’ve tried to keep a multistakeholder view to development of these guidelines. We’ve opened it up now for anyone and everyone to come up with suggestions. We sent this to the government, and we will be sending this to other industry associations. And, of course, members of the public, influencers, digital marketing companies, advertising companies are all invited to collaborate to finalize these guidelines.

ASCI is accepting inputs on its guidelines via email at hilda[at]ascionline[dot]org. If you would like us to cover your responses to this consultation, please send us a copy at aroon@medianama.com.

Also read: Endorsements To Become Tricky For Influencers, Celebrities: A Closer Look At Draft Guidelines For Advertisements

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