The Influencer Marketing industry is one of the fastest-growing industries in India. What seemed like uncharted territories for most has now developed into a giant in its own right with a massive boom in the number of Influencers and Content Creators in just the past year. All of which has led to a major shift in the way businesses and brands perceive Influencer marketing and their investment in the same. This change has definitely brought more earning opportunities for talented and entertaining individuals who have consistently managed to create and expand their own online communities over the years. 

However, while the industry has seen positive growth, it isn’t without flaws and unorganized processes. Like every good thing, the Influencer Marketing Industry also comes with its own pros and cons with the latter mostly concerning the social media population who aren’t just targeted as viewers and followers by the Creators but as potential paying customers by brands leaving them susceptible to easy manipulation or fake advertising. With the growing interests of brands in Influencers, and the cutthroat competition amongst creators, bloggers and influencers, it is safe to say, knowing or unknowingly, some lines get crossed raising some burning questions. 

To avoid these unfair practices and ensure the safety of the consumers, the Advertising Standards Council of India aka ASCI recently proposed guidelines to regulate the Influencer Marketing practices in India. The guidelines are open for consumer and industry feedback until 8th March 2021. Following which the final draft will be issued by 31st March 2021 and will be applicable on all posts published after the 15th of April, 2021.

Now that brands and creators will have to be open about their association and put relevant labels, it makes us question its impact on the industry’s growth, and how comfortable all stakeholders involved here will be. Will creators benefit from the label or will their followers be convinced to buy the product or service?

Check out some of the highlights of the proposed influencer marketing guidelines here:

 We discussed the reasons and possible effects of the proposed guidelines by ASCI with some Creators and Influencers. Welcoming the guidelines, Nikunj Lotia aka BeYouNick said, “This is a welcome change. Many brands have their own directions when they do sponsored posts like mentioning them, putting a mention on copy or a link etc, this brings them into a common operating guideline of what to use and when. It’s a great starting point but it will probably also evolve from here onwards.”

We also asked Creators if they were aware of the suggested additions to the guidelines by ASCI for Influencer marketing and if they’d be open to tags/labels like these. In response to this, Creators, Varun Agarwal of Settle Subtle said, “Yes, I recently read about it. To be honest, I’m not really taken aback by this. I feel most of these suggested practices were already in place, yes not as a mandate but more or less. I personally wouldn’t mind having to post an #ad, #collab or #sponsored.” Vedika Mehta and Meghna Kaur also expressed that they’d be open to it and were more or less already following these tags/labels.

While Sanjyot Keer, Chef and Founder of Your Food Lab pointed out, “Currently even before the announcement by the ASCI major platforms like Instagram, Facebook & YouTube already have norms in place to identify branded content so the announcement does not change the labeling process of branded content as such. There are ‘paid partnership’, ‘branded content’ and ‘includes paid promotion’ tags on the platforms respectively. We use these tags whenever we are running a branded content campaign which clearly distinguishes regular content from branded content.  If a content creator does not use the tags, the content is flagged and pulled down, often content strikes are also put in place by the platform against the creator. So there is a system already in place by these platforms and if on other platforms such a system is not in place, the platforms should be advised to do so to regulate the usage of the tags/labels and not the content creator which makes it much easier to regulate branded content.”

BeYouNick shared, “It’s a great starting point but it will probably also evolve from here onwards. Digital content creators have their own format of content, some do travel, some practise a skill, some entertain, brands are often involved in specific parts of the content instead of the content at its entirety. It can get confusing/misleading for the audience there. For eg If I was wearing a jacket bartered with a brand on my road trip where I perform, my performance isn’t really a brand partnership.”

While Shlok Shrivastava (Techburner) said, “I would rather be interested to convey this via my content that we have collaborated with these brands. Initially as well whenever we did collaboration, we tried to make an association in a way that the audience gets the message that we have collaborated with a brand and they know that we have worked with the product. For eg: on YouTube, it’s not an ad because if someone is reviewing a product or making a judgment about a product, it is not just a positive video, we make sure we give a correct image out to the audience. And the brand always sees us as a platform to get to the audience, more like a collaborator as well as to provide value to the audience.”

Saloni Gaur, on the other hand, said, “I think we don’t have a choice when it comes to tags and labels. Once they finalise it we’ll have to use them anyway.”

The Creators seemed to be divided in opinion about the suggested guidelines with respect to adding a clear distinction between promoted and organic/editorial content. 

Meghna and Varun weren’t in favour of ASCI’s guideline that suggested the disclosure to be ‘superimposed’ onto image-only and video-only posts. Elaborating her thoughts, Meghna said, “I’m personally not in the favour of “superimpose” as I said earlier, I generally also do tag “paid promotion” tag when needed but it shouldn’t be put in my viewers face and take away from my created content.”

Similarly, Varun explained, “I’m not particularly happy about the term ‘superimpose’ the label on a promotional picture or video post. I think that will hamper the look and feel of the final content created. I mean making it clear doesn’t meaning put it on your face right? Most of the other practices as I mentioned earlier are quite practical and are in place by many already.”

Vedika was of the opinion that ‘the distinction was fair as the tags “unsponsored/organic” really do make an impact to a lot of customers, since it conveys that it’s a true recommendation, without incentive’. On similar lines, considering the POV of the consumers, Saloni said, “If we see this from the consumers’ point of view I think it would be good for people to know that the video they are going to watch is an advertisement and they’ll be able to make better choices without being misled.”

Shlok raised his concern saying, “I respect the opinion and the guidelines but I believe authenticity is what will make a difference. Because if we are saying upfront that this content is a paid partnership, and the creator is not authentic, then the content would not make sense.”

Making the discussion a tad personal, we asked the Creators if they think these guidelines will impact the volume of brand collaborations they get.

To this, Saloni said, “I think it might, we’ll learn about this in some time. Although, a lot of brands want the video to be as organic as possible. Sometimes they don’t even want their names to be mentioned, just an integration in the video somehow but now when we’ll need to disclose each and everything some brands might not want to collaborate anymore.Then again, we all have different audiences and there are certain brands who are not ready to advertise on TV or other platforms and only want to target a specific age group then, they would still work with us.”

Sanjyot highlighted, “The rise of influencer marketing and its potential is huge and yes there should be guidelines in place but the guidelines should also not hinder content viewing experience. Working with the platforms is a better way to start and content creators also should work with brands with their due diligence keeping their viewers in mind.”

While Meghna, Varun and Vedika expressed similar opinions and said that these guidelines would bring more structure and transparency to the industry instead of hampering the volume of collaborations they get.

However, you can’t help but wonder if these proposed guidelines suggest that the onus of transparency only lies with the brands and influencers and not the consumer to do their due diligence over the branded content they come across on social media. We asked Vedika, Saloni, Varun and Meghna the same and they were all of the opinion that the onus and responsibility lies equally with the brand (for transparency), the influencer (for not blindly promoting brands) and also on the consumer to make informed choices and not being easily influenced.

An interesting take that Sanjyot shared mentioned, “Different rules for different content types & platforms would be very difficult to follow and even difficult to regulate as drafted by the ASCI. Other guidelines suggested by ASCI such as non-usage of filters when referring to ‘whiter teeth’ etc. & claims such as 2x better, are in the favour of the consumer. As a Creator, I always look into these claims before highlighting them in our branded content, but unfortunately I see ads on television etc. not following such norms which are regulated often but also are not followed by many brands. 

ASCI is a self regulatory body and it is a non government body and its role is recommendatory, which also means that the draft is a suggestion and not a legal mandate for now and the draft is open to suggestion until a later date. However, ASCI is recognized by various government departments & in the past the government has acted upon ASCI’s suggestions in various fronts.”

The final draft of the ASCI guidelines is expected to be released on the 31st of March, 2021.