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Only 20% influencers following paid content guidelines. Is ASCI listening?

The advertising regulatory board guidelines clear state that when a paid content or ad is played on digital platforms, influencers should mention so. However, not many are following it. While one section says there is lack of clarity on the guidelines, others say brands won’t allow them do so.

July 14, 2021 / 08:42 PM IST

While influencers will have to tell it all when it comes to brand collaborations or paid promotions, it looks like not many are doing it.

The Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), in May this year, came out with the final guidelines for influencers on digital platforms, asking them to make sure viewers are well aware if a content is a paid one or an ad.

The guidelines by the self-regulatory body came into effect from June 14.

However, a look at some of the posts on Instagram shows that some influencers are not following the guidelines yet.

Content creator Mridul Madhok, who has 1.5 million followers on Instagram, recently posted about nutrition brand Nutrabox’s product Whey Protein, in which he talks about the benefits of the protein powder and recommends it to people. However, there is no disclosure label attached to the short video post.

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Another influencer, Fizah Khan, recently made a short video on beauty products by a brand called Aegte, talking about the benefits of some of the products. This post, too, has no disclosure label attached to it.

The ASCI guidelines clearly state that if there is any material connection between an influencer and a brand, disclosures are necessary.

It also states that if there is no material connection, influencers should mention that a post is not paid content. This is something that many international influencers already follow.

Also read: ASCI comes up with guidelines, but do they have the teeth to make brands and influencers fall in line?

‘Govt should take the lead’

According to Pranav Panpalia, Founder, OpraahFx, an influencer-marketing platform, only 20 percent of the entire influencer community is currently following the guidelines and it maybe because of lack of awareness.

“But I am sure the big ones are aware. A couple of influencers called me saying that the brand is not allowing them to mention #ad or paid promotion. So, what can they do? Will there be legal consequences? So, there are a lot of questions in the minds of influencers, even the big ones. Till the time this is not going to be government-led, this is going to be something that is followed by choice," he said.

Adding to this, Neel Gogia, Co-founder, IPLIX Media said, " “I have seen a plethora of influencers flouting ASCI guidelines and in fact, I have observed that some brands are not following them as well as they are not comfortable in declaring collaboration deals as ADs. However, on the other hand, there are some influencers who are rejecting deals because brands are pushing them to not declare collaborations."

Even Kunal Kishore Sinha, Co-founder & COO, ClanConnect said that it will still take some time for all the influencers to follow the ASCI regulations.

"Immediate industry-wide implementation is impossible in such cases," he added.

In fact, when it comes to the implementation of guidelines, there is less clarity around that as well. For example, many influencers who do mention paid partnership or paid post have not done it the way the guidelines want it. The guidelines state that disclosures may get missed if they appear only on the ‘About Me’ or ‘Profile’ page, or bios.

Also, for video or picture posts, the guidelines mention that disclosure labels should be superimposed over the picture/video.

However, influencers like Ahsaas Channa, who has 2.2 million followers on Instagram, in her recent post about Mi 11 Lite, mentions paid partnership below her name and does not have it imposed on her picture post.

Similarly, influencer Dolly Singh, in over a minute-long video regarding skincare products by Olay has mentioned #ad in the description and not in the video. But the guidelines mention that the disclosure label should stay for 1/3rd the length of the video for videos which are longer than 15 seconds, but less than two minutes.

Content creator Aanchal Agrawal, who has 174,000 followers on Instagram, shares the struggle of content creators in terms of the following guidelines.

Lack of clarity

“I think not many influencers know about the guidelines clearly yet. Many of us know that we have to follow them but it’s unclear how to and on what posts, especially budding creators who do not necessarily have a team to guide them on promotional content and collaborations,” she said.

Adding to this, Aayush Tiwari, VP, Talent Management & Music Business, Monk Entertainment, a digital media company, said: “I am sure a massive chunk of influencers are unaware that these policies have come into action. Some brands still prefer taking the organic route to capitalise on an influencer’s organic reach.”

Panpalia concurs. “I have a feeling that brands don't want it (to add disclosures) because the moment you mention paid promotion, the content becomes your face and engagement levels also get affected. And as brands want to save the engagement rate, it’s (adding disclosures) being avoided.”

This is why Tiwari says “a largescale educational drive, teaching both brands and influencers the exact specifications and consequences of not following the guidelines might instill sincerity and stop foul play”.

ClanConnect's Sinha said that "since the influencer industry comprises both advertising and PR aspects, the influencer advertising guidelines alone might not be the definitive solution. Going forward, the country’s apex PR associations may release some guidelines for this domain which would help in defining the balance between identifying organic and sponsored posts."

However, Panpalia pointed out that until a government body is involved and supports the ASCI’s guidelines, he is unsure how effective the guidelines will be in the long run.

No strong action yet

Tiwari said no legal action has been taken against influencers who’ve failed the guidelines yet. “The policies are still very naïve for many influencers, but as they get more regulated, strict action is expected."

Influencer Agrawal also said that she hasn't heard of any action against anyone yet. “I haven’t heard of anyone getting any notices, but it will be nice to have it regulated so we know exactly what needs to be done and what needs to be avoided."

Shuchi Sethi, India Lead, AnyTag, POKKT, said there hasn't been any news so far about ASCI taking action or influencers being served a notice. She added that influencers could be forced to take a video down and publish it as per guidelines. But influencers can't be criminally charged for it, she said.

Panpalia noted that unlike India, the rules are strict abroad.

“We are working with a lot of Los Angeles-based influencers. If we ask them to not add disclosures, they straight up say no and that they will be fined by the government and that there will be a legal case against them. These situations are not arising in India," he said.

ASCI’s action against influencers flouting rules

“Most influencers found violating guidelines have either corrected or removed the posts within a couple of hours of being contacted by us. Around 40 complaints have been received so far. In a couple of cases, where influencers have argued that their posts were organic in nature, further investigations are ongoing,” Manisha Kapoor, Secretary-General, ASCI, told Moneycontrol.

ASCI has tied up with a French technology provider, Reech, which uses artificial intelligence to identify lack of disclosure on social posts of a commercial nature, she said. “We are running trials on this and in the next 10-15 days, this monitoring will also begin in a full-fledged way,” she added.

It is a self regulatory body, so it has limited powers but intimate ministries or government departments with regard to non-compliance, and it has done so in many cases. Legal experts say there is a good amount of weightage given to ASCI regulations.

While it has been less than a month since the ASCI guidelines came into effect, it looks like the agency has its task cut out.

When it comes to educating influencers and other stakeholders in the influencer marketing space, Aarushi Sethi, Business Head, Pollen, an influencer marketing agency, said that sharing reference points (benchmarks or case studies of influencers and brands that have successfully implemented these guidelines) will go a long way in educating content creators.
Maryam Farooqui
first published: Jul 8, 2021 06:36 pm

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