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Manisha Kapoor

Ever since the Advertising Council of India (ASCI) issued draft guidelines to streamline influencer marketing last month, the industry has been sharing mixed feelings. If the guidelines have been highly welcomed and applauded by stakeholders, they have also come in for healthy criticism for quite a few reasons. 

Over the past few days, dived deep into the issue to thoroughly understand the details from the point of view of the stakeholders. And in this interaction, we try to get the council's side of the debate. Manisha Kapoor, Secretary-General, ASCI, sheds light on the widely misinterpreted definitions and nuances of the guidelines.

As the self-governing body wants to reach out to influencers to collaborate with them to educate all concerned about the guidelines, Kapoor said it is also important for them to understand that honest advertising will only help them to grow.

While she acknowledged the critical role of influencer agencies in the process, she said the onus still lies on advertisers and influencers and that there is no role of agencies in the guidelines as of now other than to educate stakeholders.

Dismissing the argument that the guidelines will make the influencer marketing ecosystem bureaucratic or cumbersome, Kapoor said it is just a small period of adjustment.


How will the guidelines be enforced and what kind of penalty can influencers or advertisers attract for not abiding by them? Who all can escalate complaints and other than the governing body, who will resolve the issues?

The ASCI is a self-regulatory body and not a judicial or a government body. It was formed about 35 years ago when the industry came together to invest in responsible advertising. Through the guidelines, we are requesting for responsible advertising to exist in the market. Whenever we receive a complaint about an ad, we always reach out to the advertiser and get information from them in terms of what their response to the complaint is. And then eventually, if we decide that the ad is in violation of any of our codes, we recommend that it is either modified or withdrawn from the market. A certain number of days are given for action to be taken.

We understand it's never easy to make an ad. It is an effort that takes a lot of resources. So, I think just a modification or withdrawal of it is not something an advertiser can take very lightly. And in our point of view, modification or withdrawal of the ad is sufficient. The ASCI does not impose any punitive penalty and is not part of the legal framework. The governing body for influencer marketing, posts, profiles would be ASCI only. In terms of the process, whenever we receive a consumer complaint, we write to the advertiser. We will write to the advertiser and the influencer, get back their comments and feedback. Once we get a clarification from the advertiser on whatever they have to say about the ad, we take this to the Consumer Complaints Council, which comprises both industry and non-industry members. The council will then receive the complaint, look at the advertiser response and then decide whether the complaint has to be upheld, if the ad is fine or if a modification is required. These recommendations are then passed on both to the complainant as well as to the advertiser. The advertiser is then asked to confirm whether it is complying or not. In most cases—for example, last year, in 98% of the cases—we have received compliance. So, it's quite an effective system and even without penalties, it is working very well.

What would be the mechanism to track all the posts, influencers and paid associations, specifically on such a large scale?

Essentially, we get two kinds of complaints. One is what we call a consumer complaint or a direct consumer complaint, where a consumer sees a particular advertisement or a piece of communication, feels there is something that is either not honest about it, or misleading, or offensive. They will then send a complaint to ASCI. So, consumers are our eyes and ears. They are the ones who pick up complaints from different places and they send it to ASCI for examination. In a country of a billion people, if you can spread awareness, they become the big ears and eyes of a body like ASCI.

Having said that, we have a tie-up where we do a lot of suo moto monitoring, pick up ads ourselves. We monitor over 3,000 digital platforms for advertisements as well as ads on TV and print. However, when it comes to the specific influencer guidelines, at this point of time, we are not looking at suo moto monitoring to start with. Our approach in this is that we want to reach out to influencers to collaborate with them, to explain to them why these are important. We want them to understand why certain rules and regulations and ways of behaving are actually in a sense in the favour of influencers and in the industry. Because when you have honest advertising, you will have audiences. And if they make sure that they are not violating that trust in any way, then they will continue to grow. We will respond to consumer complaints as the guidelines have just been launched. Since it's a new learning curve for everyone, we want to make it very collaborative and educational. We want to spread awareness, guide and coach influencers on the correct way of following the code.

Will you include any kind of penalty framework, a non-competition clause between brands and influencers and a written agreement between them on the deliverables and liabilities of the campaign as suggested by a few marketers?

A contract between an influencer and a brand is a document for both of them to sign and it's not something on which ASCI will have a point of view in terms of enforcing anything. However, we suggested in our guidelines issues such as due diligence and full disclosure. We recommend that both influencers and brands, in their own best interests, include all of these clauses in contracts. If they chose not to, that's not something ASCI can do anything about. We are not here to supervise the millions of contracts that are being funded.

Influencers feel the ‘due diligence’ part puts a bit of pressure on them since it’s not in their hands all the time to check and verify claims. It’s not like we ask models and film stars to verify what they’ve been saying they use. Your comment. 

Film stars are also asked to verify the claims. If anyone has a following, has an audience of ordinary people following them, there has to be a sense of responsibility. You have to realise that with great influence, comes great responsibility and it goes together. We don't expect every influencer or film star or celebrity to know the technical details or chemical formulation of every product they endorse. But they have to confirm whether such a claim is indeed substantiated by scientific evidence. They have to ask the right question to the advertiser. So the idea is to make sure that the influencers do their due diligence. We are not asking the influencers to do their own scientific tests. If an advertiser has no proof, isn't it in the influencer’s best interest to not endorse that product?

Marketers believe the guidelines might make the whole influencer marketing space more cumbersome and bureaucratic because of the documenting, filtration and paperwork. They also might end up hiring more people for this, which is the opposite of why influencer marketing used to be their favourite. Your comment.

When you have certain influence or audiences, you cannot shy away from responsibility and cannot mislead people. Brands the world over have developed systems, have developed processes to make sure what they put out to consumers is not misleading. We don't need this as a corrective action; it should be part of the process. If everyone starts taking responsibility, there is a certain safety in the ecosystem where there are brands, influencers, advertisers and platforms. If there are certain guidelines that keep everyone safe, and the internet becomes a safer place for consumers to be in, I don't think brands would feel this is cumbersome. We have seen brands worldwide do fantastic work and having extremely creative influencers. They have these guidelines for many years. And even in India, influencers are so creative and innovative that I don't see this is going to be cumbersome for them. Yes, there will be a small period of adjustment. Not all advertising is boring and good influencers will find a way to be truthful and interesting at the same time. If being creative comes at the cost of misleading audiences, it is not a valid argument. Also, there will be no separate guidelines for micro-influencers.

How will the guidelines differentiate between ‘advocacy’ and ‘influencer marketing’?

According to the draft guidelines, if there is a material connection between an influencer and the brand behind a post, you have to disclose it. In case you purchase the product and talk about it, that's organic content. However, if someone has been sent free samples or been sponsored a hotel stay, don't you think consumers have a right to know that? All we are saying is when an influencer posts something on behalf of a brand and there is a material connection, all you have to do is talk to the consumers about it and tell them. We've given some options such as #promotions #collaborations, etc. If there isn't any monetary or any material connection, then you don't have to disclose anything. If a consumer feels something is looking very commercial in nature, but there seems to be no declaration, they can file a complaint with ASCI. It is as easy as sending a WhatsApp message.

Agencies believe they are the intermediaries and the ones getting these guidelines followed by both parties—influencers and brands. So would there be mention of agencies in the final guidelines? If not, why?

Certainly, they're an important part of the ecosystem. Influencer industry is very young with a lot of very young people in this industry. You have people who are 25, less than 30 years old. So the need for education in the ecosystem is very important. Therefore, agencies are extremely important. So we've been kind of dialoguing with them, keeping them informed. And we would like for more and more influencer agencies to become a part of this movement of education. However, the final responsibility of the particular guidelines is on the advertiser and the influencer. I don't think that there is a role in the guideline (for agencies) that we see as of now.

There have been apprehensions about ‘not using filters’ and a suggestion for the council to add an example in the guideline. 

We are not saying influencers can't use filters. The ASCI doesn’t want them to use a filter to exaggerate a claim about a product. So it is not like they can't use general filters. They simply should not be used to exaggerate a claim because that can mislead consumers into thinking about the actual effect of a product. So it's not a blanket ban on filters at all. We are just saying you have to be careful about the filters you use and do not use ones that exaggerate the performance of the product. Also, yes, we will add an example in the final guidelines.