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'Influencers need to become professional, organised and know the law': ASCI CEO

As influencer disclosure norms are back in the spotlight, Advertising Standards Council of India's CEO and secretary general, Manisha Kapoor, says the influencer industry should form a united community to protect themselves. Often, smaller influencers don't have the wherewithal to assess contracts, misleading claims or unusual requests

Pankti Mehta Kadakia
Published: Jul 5, 2023 01:13:19 PM IST
Updated: Jul 5, 2023 01:31:58 PM IST

'Influencers need to become professional, organised and know the law': ASCI CEOWith obscure terminology floating around influencer marketing, the boundaries between an actual recommendation and a paid advertisement are blurring more each day. Image: Shuttertock

What’s the difference between #Gifted and #Collab? 

With obscure terminology floating around influencer marketing, the boundaries between an actual recommendation and a paid advertisement are blurring more each day. To protect consumers from misinformation, the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) released guidelines back in 2021, and says it received 2,000 complaints against influencers flouting norms last year.

Earlier this week, Sebi announced that they will soon release draft guidelines for ‘finfluencers’, or influencers that dole out financial advice. Misleading claims, even as part of paid partnerships, are now violations of the law—and it seems like influencers are unaware of the legalities that surround their profession.
Manisha Kapoor, CEO and secretary general of ASCI, spoke with Forbes India about the challenges of monitoring this menace. Edited excerpts:
Q. How has advertising changed in the past couple of years, with more digital channels and even more influencers?
There’s a greater intensity in what digital media allows you to do. Now, we’re grappling with how AI will interface with advertising and influencer content, for instance. It’s a collision of so many different fields and technologies, which are making their way into media and advertising. We’re seeing it morph into something new every few months, if not every few weeks.
The challenge is, from a consumer point of view, to understand what is happening; from a marketeer’s perspective, it’s about using the technology in an honest way. For a regulator, the challenge is that monitoring becomes very complex.
Recently, we introduced guidelines on dark patterns, which is another product of the digital era. Some of this is quite innocuous. What is misleading and the way in which designs and information is used, is becoming more and more grey.
Earlier, it was much easier to say that ‘this is definitely misleading’. Today, ads are personalised—the ad that you see is different from the one that I see.

Also read: New advertisers need to genuinely believe in responsible advertising: ASCI CEO
Q. How does the ASCI keep up with monitoring these ads then?
It is a big challenge on two fronts. One is to identify these issues and build some consensus around them, in terms of what needs to be protected from a consumer rights point of view, and what a best practice is for businesses.
The second and bigger challenge, once we have decided that ‘this is not okay’, is to actually have the wherewithal to monitor that. So increasingly, we will also turn to data science and AI software to be able to locate some of these issues.
I think a lot more also needs to be done on consumer education. It’s a daunting task, to be honest.
Q. At a time when a lot of the cards are in the hands of digital platforms, in terms of where disclosures can be displayed and in what format, what would you say is the role of a body like yours?
For the past 12 to 15 months—and you’ll see a lot more initiative from ASCI here in the coming months—we’ve been focussed on how to create the idea of self-regulation. We need to hone in at the point the ad is created, not after it is published. In the age of digital and influencer advertising, even if we take rapid action, the campaign might be over by the time we get to it, or the Instagram Story might have already disappeared. So I think it’s about responsible and progressive creation of advertising becoming more of a focus, and prevention rather than corrective action.

How do we build that? We are looking at education and awareness building amongst the industry as well as for future members of the industry. We are in the midst of building an ASCI Academy to do this at scale.

Also read: Influencers Overtaking Journalists As A News Source: Reuters Report
Q. Can you give us a sense of how many complaints you have received of influencers flouting ASCI guidelines? What happens after a complaint is registered?
Last year, we handled about 8,000 complaints, of which about 25 percent were about influencers. So roughly about 2,000 complaints in the last year. Some of these came from consumers, some from our own monitoring.

Once a complaint is registered, we will write to both the advertiser and the influencer, asking them to confirm that this is an ad, some material exchange has taken place. We’ve seen that in a majority of cases (about 60 percent), the influencers will immediately make the correction, even before the case is investigated.

For influencers that are constantly flouting norms, repeated and wilful violators, we will directly take the case to a jury and also bring it to the notice of the government. Not disclosing any material exchange is not only a violation of the ASCI code, but also of the law.  
Q. We’re likely to see Sebi guidelines for finfluencers in particular. What are some things we hope to see in that draft?
So Sebi will look at financial advice given, whether or not it is an ad. Both in areas of healthcare and finance, the loss to consumers can be quite significant. I think it’s a welcome move to have certain guardrails in place to make sure that nobody exploits consumers’ lack of expertise or vulnerability.

Also read: Why every business needs a digital marketing agenda
Q. What are three things you think influencers should be aware of?
The first thing that influencers need to know is that they are covered under the law. It’s not a hobby, it’s a profession. To enter a professional field, you need to have a certain degree of professionalism. This means knowing the legalities, dos and don’ts, an awareness of what can get you in trouble and what can keep you safe.

The second is on misleading claims being made. I understand that many influencers are smaller operators, and may not have the wherewithal to be able to scientifically or otherwise validate a claim that a company is making. So, I would ask them, then, to create their content in a way that does not make hard claims. Either base them on personal experience or stick to your areas of expertise.

Thirdl I would ask the community to get more organised. A lot of them are desperate to get their first break and do not pay attention to things like how a contract is drafted. So having a slightly united community helps to put their voice out to other stakeholders who are more organised.
Q. Three things you would tell consumers?
Consumers are the biggest eyes and ears that any of us have, whether it’s the government or any other singular body. The country is vast and social media is like an ocean. It’s important that consumers start engaging with the idea of making things right. When you see something you think is problematic, question it.
We’ve also made it quite easy to report a misleading ad—you can do it over WhatsApp.

The second thing is for consumers to really educate themselves. I don’t mean that all the onus needs to be on them, but a certain degree of due diligence will help to keep themselves safe, as there are all kinds of players and platforms out there.

Last, it’s great when consumers celebrate good, responsible advertising. Recently, there was a tea ad that was shared a lot, and that was great. It’s a great motivator for brands to do better, and for us to be engaged and demanding good quality advertising.

Misleading advertisements can be reported to ASCI on WhatsApp at 7710012345.

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