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  • Raghav Sand

ASCI Issues Guidelines for Influencer Advertising on Digital Media

With great influence, comes great responsibility. This is the message on the penultimate page of the draft guidelines for ‘Influencer advertising on digital media’. Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) has sought feedback on these guidelines until 8th March, 2021. Based on the feedback and inputs, the final guidelines will be issued by ASCI by 31st March, 2021. The influencer advertising guidelines will be applicable to all promotional posts published on or after 15th April, 2021.

Digital media has become an important part of everyday life. The reach and influence of internet and smartphones, respectively, has helped in making content on digital media universal. Brands realised the potential of digital media’s reach and diverted some of the funds towards it from print, outdoor and television advertising.

The line between content and advertisement has become blurry; it is critical that consumers are able to distinguish when something is being promoted with the purpose to influence their opinion or behaviour for an immediate or eventual commercial gain. ASCI is the apex body in India for formulating and monitoring advertising regulations.

Updated Definitions

ASCI has updated key definitions and none more significant than of advertisement itself. An advertisement is defined as a paid-for communication, addressed to the public or a section of it, the purpose of which is to influence the opinions and/or behaviour of those to whom it is addressed. Any communication which in the normal course may or may not be recognized as an advertisement by the general public, but is owned or authorized by the advertiser or brand owner would be included in the definition. The new definition attempts to look at advertising holistically.

An important term that has been defined in the draft regulations is material connection/payment. Examples of a material connection or payment could be free products including those received unsolicited, direct monetary exchange, trips or hotel stays, media barters, coverage, awards, with the expectation—explicit or implied—that a promotion or inclusion of the advertiser’s products in a post occurs immediately or eventually.

Digital media is an evolving medium and new modes and methods are making their presence felt in public domain. Internet, on-demand platforms, mobile broadcast, digital TV etc., are some of the inclusions in the definition of digital media.

Media owners include organizations or individuals in effective control of the management of media or their agents. Media are any means used for the propagation of advertisements and include press, cinema, radio, television, hoardings, hard bills, direct mail, posters, internet, digital etc.

As per ASCI, an Influencer is someone who has access to an audience and the power to affect their audience’s purchasing decisions or opinions about a product, service, brand or experience, because of the influencer’s authority, knowledge, position, or relationship with their audience. An influencer can intervene in an editorial context or in collaboration with a brand to publish content.

All of us must have come across influencer advertising on digital media in some form. Whether it is the gang of girls soliciting a hair removal cream or other personal hygiene products or a comic content creator pushing an online gaming platform to his/her viewers/subscribers. Travel and investment companies are not far behind in vying for the attention of the always online consumer. Some of these placements have irked consumers, and ASCI after receiving representations and complaints began the process of standardizing influencer advertising on digital media.

As per the draft guidelines, the influencer and brand must clarify that a piece of communication is an advertisement. By seeing/listening to a disclosure label/message upfront, an average consumer should be able to recognise that something is an advertisement without having to click or otherwise interact with it. The responsibility of the disclosure is upon the influencer or publishing account on which the advertisement is published, as well as the advertiser for whose brand the advertisement is being communicated.

Disclosure Label Options

ASCI has laid out five labels to be used in influencer advertising on digital media. These are #ad, #collab, #promo, #sponsored, and #partnership. No other labels may be used as consumers may not be familiar with short forms or other words to imply advertisements. This list will be periodically reviewed to add any new labels that become popular or recognized by an average consumer as a way to imply promotional communication. The disclosure label must be in English or translated into the language of the advertisement. If the advertisement is only a picture post such as Instagram stories or Snapchat, the label needs to be superimposed over the picture and it should be ensured that the average consumer is able to see it clearly.

Filters are frequently used in digital media posts. Such visual aids enhance the look and feel of the media content. ASCI, in its draft guidelines has said that, “Filters should not be applied to social media advertisements if they exaggerate the effect of the claim that the brand is making – e.g., makes hair shinier, teeth whiter etc.”

The onus of due diligence will be upon the influencer. The influencer must do their due diligence about any technical or performance claims made by them such as 2X better, effect lasts for 1 month, fastest speed, best in class etc. Evidence of due diligence would include correspondence with the advertiser or brand owner confirming that the specific claim made in the advertisement is capable of scientific substantiation.

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