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Responsible marketing is need of the hour, and the new norms for influencers and content creators will just fuel it further, said most stakeholders in response to the Advertising Standards Council of India’s (ASCI) latest guidelines to streamline the influencer marketing space. They, however, batted for a few amendments for more clarity. reached out to brands, agencies and influencers to get a holistic point of view on the guidelines unveiled this month.

Sujit Patil

According to Sujit Patil, VP and Head Corporate Brand and Communications, Godrej Industries, consumers have evolved over the last few years and expect authenticity in communications. The guidelines, he felt, will appropriately change the approach of advertisers from the angle of ethics and transparency.

Samta Datta

On the other hand, Samta Datta, General Manager, Marketing, Paree, felt while an initial adjustment would be required, it would build long-term equity for brands and influencers, adding the guidelines have given a legit framework and recognition to this young industry.

The fact of the matter is that the audience cares about disclosure. It is crucial information when gauging the validity of a recommendation and so radical transparency is the need of the hour, Datta said.

Petal Gangurde

The cost of online misrepresentation is huge and without full disclosure, the influencer marketing industry, which is built on authenticity, will only get murky, said Petal Gangurde, Vice President Brand and Marketing, XYXX Apparels.

“When individual influencers post about their interests to earn extra money on the side, there is nothing to worry about. But when companies launder advertising by paying someone for a seemingly honest endorsement or review, it needs to be called out. Consumers have the right to make informed decisions. Blurring ethical lines in the name of creativity or freedom of expression is simply not acceptable,” Gangurde said.

Smita Murarka

Smita Murarka, Chief Marketing Officer, Duroflex, said the guidelines should be looked at positively as an attempt to bring transparency among creators, followers and brands. “It would be keen to see how this monitoring plays out and it shouldn’t become moral policing in any way. The guidelines are quite tight in establishing brand partnerships with any creator, thus making content the hero.”

Pranav Panpalia

It has been a norm in western countries for influencers and brands to follow very stringent rules in terms of communicating the nature of their brand promotion to their audiences. With ASCI establishing similar guidelines in India, Pranav Panpalia, founder, OpraahFx, believes it will help elevate the reputation of creators in terms of being honest with their audience set.

However, given how the influencer marketing industry is evolving rapidly, he said, the current guidelines will have to be reviewed periodically and amendments will have to be made promptly.

Manish Chowdhary

Manish Chowdhary, Co-founder, Wow Skin Science, expects both brands and influencers to do a certain level of self-moderation. He said the use of AI and latest monitoring technologies by ASCI will promote consumer trust in brands and influencers and can help to reduce consumer complaints regarding promotional content.

What is missing in the guidelines

While they are better for consumers, the guidelines present major challenges for businesses, Petal said.

Brands that use influencers to reach and impact consumers fear that labelling posts as sponsored compromises the genuineness of the content by stating its purpose as an ad. Part of the reason influencers add value is that users perceive them as reputable sources for genuine, unbiased advice. The real winners will be the businesses that devote time to craft the right content strategies and associations with influencers who naturally fit with their identity and mission, she said.

One thing that is not being considered is the creative freedom of an influencer or a reviewer, Chowdhary feels. The guidelines might impact to a little degree the creative freedom of the influencers, and they might experience a drop in their followers or viewership.

“We expect some impact on organic content because of certain rules in the guidelines and expect it to be a little cumbersome in implementing all the rules. Also, the blanket rule on terming every received product or service as promotional does not seem right. It needs certain amendments. We feel that a review or content counts as an advertisement only when there is a monetary gain for the influencer from such a review. ASCI should take into consideration such nuances. There needs to be more clarity in terms of genuine editorial/influencer review and a paid partnership between a brand and influencer,” he added.

Patil too feels that the guidelines could have been sharper.

How does one arrive at the decision that a campaign is organic or paid for? How does one prove a material connection between an advertiser and an influencer?

“If, for instance, a brand and an influencer collude and camouflage any transaction, how can it be proved? Some influencers collaborate with a brand only for a part of their content. What happens in the case of unsolicited brand posts where a person could be a known influencer but has organically expressed brand love on social media handles? Many tech reviewers double-up as influencers and post their review content made for the media on their personal page. According to the guidelines, the news content might be considered as editorial but the one on the personal page may be marked with a free product or sponsored tag. This leads to confusion. There is also a need to define an influencer as one can have 10K following and still have no influence and one can have 100 followers and be influential. It would have been ideal if a benchmark could have been proposed,” he said.

Neel Gogia

Neel Gogia, Co-Founder, Iplix Media, feels that the current recommendations might not be applicable to every influencer or every tool of influencer marketing.

“The lines are a little blurred. For instance, a non-monetary association under which an influencer shares an unbiased product review will be labelled as an ad, leaving consumers in a tough spot. This will be difficult to implement for a tech or an auto influencer as they cannot buy every product for review as they are of high monetary value, and, in fact, not all the reviews are positive so they cannot be labelled as an ad. Furthermore, organic and value-added content creation with genuine product integration is being given priority by the brands, agencies, as well as influencers at the moment, and the current recommendations might not be aligned with this objective. For a YouTube content creator with long-format vlogs, labelling the entire integration section as an ad will lead the audience to ignore the content even if it adds value to them. A mention of 5-10 seconds should suffice rather than a full-length mention,” he said.

Aarushi Sethi

While ASCI has covered a lot of pointers, Aarushi Sethi, Business Head, Pollen, said there has to be more clarity as the new guidelines have increased the accountability of influencers and brands. The key issue to address, Sethi said, is the responsibility of agencies and adding clarity on defining guidelines for integrated campaigns.

“For instance, let’s assume that an influencer is doing a post on skincare routine that captures five brands in a single video. Some of the products featured in the post may have been sponsored by brands. In such a case, there is no clarity on how to call out and determine the brands that are sponsored versus those featured organically.”

She added, “We need a couple of guidelines for the platforms as well. Perhaps there can be an additional check-level before sharing a post. Or the platform should have the power to red-flag content that is not in accordance with the mandates.”

Manesh Swamy

Manesh Swamy, Vice-President, Creative, Logicserve Digital, feels that the labels shouldn’t become something like ‘subject to market research’ disclaimers, specifically in audio ads.

Kunal Kishore Sinha

However, Kunal Kishore Sinha, COO and Co-founder, ClanConnect, said the guidelines seem to have addressed all the necessary angles. They will not only streamline the space and offer a direction but also ensure there is an added sense of social responsibility among the influencer community and will filter out misleading content, he said.

Impact on nano, micro and macro-influencers

Both nano and macro-influencers will have to rethink their content strategy, Chowdhary said. They need to bring in a lot more discipline in how they showcase promotional content and actual editorial reviews. They will also need to be careful about making a difference between organic review, personal opinions, endorsements and paid partnership clearer and more evident, he said.

Nano and micro-influencers who aim to become macro-influencers in the future will grow with the guidelines, said Patil. They will be the guideline ‘natives’. The bigger influencers, also referred to as Cat A, would have to put in more effort to adopt. This is due to their visibility and the fact that they will be watched.

“It may have an impact on the business of influencers. A majority of influencers are offered barter deals. Putting up a ‘free gift’ will not be preferred over a disclaimer of ‘sponsored’. Therefore, more influencers will push for paid engagements. It will be interesting to see what happens with authentic food bloggers then,” Patil said.

Himanshu Arya

“The influencer industry is huge and there are a massive number of nano-micro influencers. ASCI is a self-regulatory body and it can't punish/summon people who don't resort to the guidelines. There is a greater need to be aware of micro and nano-influencers,” said Himanshu Arya, Founder and CEO- Grapes Digital.

According to Slayy Point (YouTube comedy channel created by Abhyudaya Mohan and Gautami Kawale), the meaning of what a relationship with a brand constitutes is not very clear in the messaging of the guidelines and seems a bit overly simplified as there are multiple types of brand deals that creators do, and also give unbiased reviews, regardless of being sent free products to try. The impact on larger influencers will be more accountability and better communication with the brand, plus the audience. But newer influencers might find it harder to get paid collaborations as most of them usually worked on a barter basis, Slayy Point stated.

In a nutshell, experts said adhering to the guidelines will only help to build a more favourable reputation as influencers will have to be transparent with their audiences. It is an opportunity for influencers to create better, transparent and engaging advertising campaigns, they said.

However, Panpalia cautioned that everyone will have to see how and to what extent these guidelines will be followed by celebrity influencers.