1. WHAT IS ASCI?
ASCI is a self-regulatory body that issues guidelines and recommendations based on customer complaints or through its own initiative for non-compliance with the guidelines. As ASCI plays a complementary role in curbing false and misleading advertisements, abiding by the guidelines will greatly mitigate potential liability under the Consumer Protection Act, 2019. ASCI was established in 1985 and is committed to the cause of Self-Regulation in Advertising, ensuring the protection of the interests of consumers. ASCI was formed with the support of all four sectors connected with Advertising — Advertisers, Advertising Agencies, Media, and others like PR Agencies and Market Research Companies. Its goals include monitoring, administering, and promoting standards of advertising practices in India with a view to ensuring truthfulness and honesty of representations and claims made through advertising and safeguarding against misleading advertising; ensuring that advertising is not offensive to generally accepted norms and standards of public decency; safeguarding against indiscriminate use of advertising for promotion of products or services which are generally regarded as hazardous to society or to individuals or which are unacceptable to society as a whole. ensuring that advertisements observe fairness in competition and the canons of generally accepted competitive behavior. ASCI holds the following responsibilities – To promote, maintain and uphold fair, sound, ethical, and healthy principles and practices of advertising, To promote a better understanding of the benefits of fair, sound, and ethical advertising amongst the practitioners of advertising and in society at large; To represent, protect, inform and guide members of the company on matters relating to advertising; To foster and promote cooperation amongst persons or companies engaged and involved in advertising.
2. NEW GUIDELINES DRAFTED BY ASCI
On 22 February 2021, ASCI released the draft guidelines for influencer advertising on digital media platforms for public comments or feedback. These guidelines will be applicable to all promotional posts published on or after April 15, 2021. These guidelines aim to enable the users to distinguish between different categories of content. The drafted guidelines require influencers and advertisers to include a pre-approved disclosure label like #ad, #collab, #promo, #sponsored, or #partnership for advertising content to disclose the promotional nature of the post. The guidelines note that an influencer is someone who has-
(a) access to an audience on social media,
(b) the power to affect the decisions or opinions of their audiences about a ‘product, service, brand or experience’ stemming from their authority, knowledge, position, or relationship with their audiences, and
(c) the power to ‘intervene in an editorial context or in collaboration with a brand to publish content.
This definition is very broad and could result in the inclusion of persons who aren’t creating content for the purpose of influencing their audience too. As per the guidelines, an advertisement or ad is a sponsored/paid communication targeted at the public or a section of it to influence their behavior/opinion. It also includes any content that may or may not be recognized as an ad, but is owned or authorized by an advertiser or a brand owner. The guidelines prescribe that a disclosure label should be attached to all promotional posts/advertising content. The disclosure label must be in English or translated into the language of the advertisement in a way that is well understood by the average consumer who is viewing the advertisement. This label should be upfront. It should appear ‘within the first two lines’ of any ad-related content so that the users do not have to click on ‘see more’ or ‘scroll under the fold’ to make out if the content is in fact a promotional post. The guidelines have specified a set of pre-approved disclosure labels to ensure uniformity and to avoid confusion that may arise from the use of creative labels that all users may not understand. For advertising content that is posted via ‘Instagram stories or Snapchat’, the guidelines note that the disclosure label should be ‘superimposed over the picture’ to ensure that users are able to ‘see it clearly’. Similarly, if the promotional video is posted without a caption/text, the label should be ‘superimposed on the video in a manner that is easily visible to the viewer’. For audio content, the label should be clearly announced at the beginning and at the end of the post. ‘Filters’ available on social media platforms should not be applied to advertising content if they would exaggerate the impact of the claim made by a brand. To put it in perspective influencers would not be able to use filters that lead to overstating a brand’s claim.
3. IMPACT OF THESE GUIDELINES
ASCI guidelines recognize the power and reach of the influencer community, give legitimacy to the upcoming form of advertisement involving digital media, and can go a long way in protecting the interests of the users by casting responsibility on the people involved in publishing promotional content. Being transparent to the consumers lies at the core of influencer marketing. To adhere to these guidelines is the responsibility of both the brands and the influencers. There has been an immense impact of influencer marketing on the consumers and it is going to continue. Hence, safety regulation is necessary to ensure that the consumers are making the right purchasing decisions. Consumers have the right to easily recognize promotional content. The guidelines will help consumers identify promotional content and also guide digital influencers. This will help to establish a responsible advertising ecosystem for influencers; promoting ethical practices, fair and transparent expression. The brands across sectors are associating with influencers to get across their marketing messages. So, much of what influencers post is promotional, and a lot of it is not identified as such. Such non-disclosure is a disservice to consumers and is misleading. These changes can affect all three entities of influencer marketing- brands, influencers as well as consumers. There could be changes in the way we perceive advertising and how it is presented to us. But looking at the growth of influencer marketing, it is safe to say that this is a glimpse of another evolution that digital marketing will undergo. Online communities are built of people who have mutual interests, who just randomly comment on each other’s pictures, tell each other how great they are doing in life, and benign things like that. Social media gives a platform for all to come further, do what they are best at, and have other people join them.
4. BUILDING AN ETHICAL COMMUNITY
The guidelines state that the influencer/content creator will need to take responsibility for the claims being made by the brand, which means they will need to take more time to evaluate the product/service, actually use it, and then promote it. This will require Influencers to understand and research the brand, its claims, and only then promote it. These people have the influence over millions of people and the guidelines are asking them to be more responsible for this privilege. Content creators/Influencers will also have more control over what they actually want to talk about the product/service and hopefully, the brands will also take this up more ethically, since they will not hold command over an influencer/content creator just because a monetary transaction is happening. Digital consumers today are smart enough to understand what is an Advert vs what is organic, and hence brands are willing to pay more to get their promotional material to look as organic as possible. All of us have the habit of skipping ads from our childhood when we used to watch our favorite TV shows. We either used to change the channel to something else or mute the TV while ads used to play. Similarly, the general audience has a tendency to skip sponsored posts, stories, videos, etc on social media as well. With these guidelines kicking in, we might see the overall engagement and reach with influencers drop and might see it get the same status quo as a paid media ad on digital. Even though we skipped the ads, there were some iconic ads that we still remember and cherish. That’s because the concept of that ad was strong, advertisers made it relatable or something which was extremely creative. These guidelines will make influencers and advertisers think and come up with interesting content which grabs the attention of their audience. This will lead to some amazing work and content being created in the influencer campaigns. Since advertisers don’t want their content to be skipped and the influencer doesn’t want his or her engagement to fall., both will work harder at making these campaigns more interesting. It took a while for brands to jump on the influencer marketing bandwagon, and it might go back to being that with newer guidelines coming in. Brands may lessen the number of influencer campaigns they run in a year. A lot of brands invest in influencer marketing because of how they can subtly advertise/promote their brand and an outright marketing promotion status may make them more skeptical in general. These guidelines will be like a double-edged sword for creators as well. While they will get a lot more say in putting out content that will work on their pages, influencers/creators who are doing a lot of branded content might see a hit in their engagement & reach numbers. Quality content will continue to win nonetheless.
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