EXCLUSIVE | Manisha Kapoor, ASCI, on influencer guidelines: With great influence comes great responsibility

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In an exclusive chat with MediaBrief, Manisha Kapoor, Secretary-General of Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), explains the rationale behind the new Influencer advertising on digital media guidelines from ASCI. She speaks about the need for full disclosure labels, the ‘affirmative response’ that the guidelines have garnered so far, and more.

How did ASCI come up with these guidelines and how does it plan to monitor the vast digital medium once these guidelines are issued? Which stakeholders were co-opted in the drafting of these? What was that process like and how much time did it take? 

Influencer marketing is mainstream now and will continue its rapid growth to boom in the years to come. It is important to introduce clear guidelines for honest and transparent advertising in this industry.

ASCI created a task force up with several partners and experts such as Google, influencer management agency Big Bang Social, Members of the Consumer Complaints Council to get views from India’s leading digital influencers as well as several other stakeholders to frame the guidelines. ASCI has already tied up with TAM to monitor the digital space for us, and we track over 3000 websites and platforms

After multiple discussions over the past three months, we have now come up with these guidelines.

What international precedents, if any, did you keep in mind while drafting these guidelines?

ASCI is part of the International Council of Advertising Self Regulators (ICAS), in fact, we are on the executive committee of ICAS. Several best practices were tapped into, including those from Canada, the US, Spain and the UK.  

What has been the response from stakeholders so far?

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We are overwhelmed with the affirmative response we received from stakeholders, especially the influencer industry. Most influencers and their representatives feel that these guidelines are extremely timely and will help the industry grows in a responsible and credible manner as we have set up listening sessions with multiple stakeholders and are still receiving feedback. They are all helping us refine the guidelines to minimise grey areas. Once that’s complete, we will consider what changes to make. 

How has ASCI involved the end-consumers in its process of drafting the guidelines, can you share some information about that process?

ASCI at its heart is about consumer protection. Our long experience of dealing with consumer complaints gives us a pulse of what consumers find misleading and objectionable. Hence, these learnings and insights are built into the guidelines. By keeping the draft guidelines for public consultation, we are trying to reach out to every stakeholder, including end consumers to come forward with their views to help us sharpen these guidelines.

Some influencers has observed that the guidelines promoting disclosure labels would hinder the influencer advertising ecosystem in the long run as brands demand that the ‘promotional’ content should not look like an advertisement. What are your thoughts on that?

Influencers and brands by and large understand the benefits of the trust their followers place in them. We are here to secure the interest of the consumers. They have a right to know if they are consuming an advertisement when they click on their favourite influencer’s promotional content.

In the history of advertising, some of the most creative ads have never had to resort to misleading consumers to be successful. To rephrase a popular line “With great influence comes great responsibility”. Influencers and brands who have a long-term view in mind would certainly support measures that promote responsibility and protect consumers. 

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On a few platforms, influencers already use a disclosure label upfront (‘paid promotion’ or ‘in paid partnership’) is ASCI’s aim to make them more mainstream and how would ASCI ensure content creators abide by these guidelines come April 15th?

With the rapid proliferation of digital platforms, there is a need to standardise disclosure labels. Not all platforms mandate disclosure. Also, an average consumer cannot be expected to spend time trying to decipher different labels of different platforms. Our emphasis is on spreading awareness about the guidelines and support advertisers and influencers who do the right thing.

Has ASCI set up or plans to set up a redressal board for the digital-only space, how can consumers move against misleading content on digital media?

We already have a Consumer Complaints Council that looks into complaints. Consumers can complain on our Whatsapp number if they find anything misleading and we will start our process. 

What are ASCI’s guidelines for (subtle) product placements in an influencer’s content? 

If there has been a monetary transaction in return for the content, the influencer has to declare it. Also, if there has been an exchange of services or goods other than money, the influencers will have to mention that prominently in the post via an appropriate disclosure label.

What if a content creator is endorsing (reviewing) products as a convenience to their followers, without getting paid, would disclosure be necessary for them? I mean, a post like this might look like an ad and in such a case, will they still be bound to mention it isn’t a paid post? Because otherwise, a post that looks like an ad without mandatory disclosure might attract censure. 

If the influencers is reviewing a product that they have themselves paid for or bought, and they are not getting paid for it, then it is not considered an advertisement under our definition. The influencer can surely review products they specialise in.

The only time an influencer has to make a clear disclosure is when there is a material connection which could change the credibility or weight of their opinion. For instance, if an influencer is getting a holiday in return for a favourable review of a hotel, they need to declare it.

ASCI has been doing an admirable job in advertisement standards in general, and is also trusted by the govt’s ministries to examine complaints. Which ones? And will ASCI provide similar support to them or other ministries on digital Influencer advertising too? 

ASCI has always worked closely with the government including the Department of Consumer Affairs, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India, Ministry of AYUSH, etc. We will continue to extend all cooperation to the government on the agenda of consumer protection from misleading advertisements.

Your thoughts, please