Creativity & responsibility are not opposed to each other, they go hand-in-hand: Manisha Kapoor

Aishwarrya Chakraverty
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Manisha Kapoor ASCI guidelines

In conversation with Social Samosa, Manisha Kapoor from ASCI sheds light on the recent influencer marketing guidelines, sharing how they were created keeping in mind the industry's concerns, and how going forward a common set of guidelines will help.

As digital advertising becomes mainstream, the distinction between content and advertisements becomes pertinent. With the latest guidelines rolled out by the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) on influencer marketing, we speak with Manisha Kapoor, Secretary-General, ASCI, to understand the need for these guidelines, key challenges/concerns, and the way forward for the industry.

Edited Excerpts

What was the need for the new influencer marketing guidelines on social media? How would it help the industry?

The draft guidelines of February 2021 were developed with consultations and collaborations as we kept it open to the other groups to share their opinions, inputs, and POVs on those guidelines. Largely, the feedbacks that we received were positive. In principle, almost everyone agreed that these guidelines were much required while other comments were related to fine-tuning certain points.

The influencer ecosystem is a growing industry and will expand more in the coming months and years to come. So, the whole system must be based on the plank of responsibility and transparency. One of the key aspects for the influencers is - audience trust and they become big when their followers trust them. 

These guidelines aid the influencers to gain the valuable trust of their audiences by being authentic about what they are communicating as part of their content.

What are the key challenges & concerns that the guidelines address? Are there any particular sectors that you intend to focus on?

These guidelines apply to all sectors. Our monitoring might focus on specific sectors at a particular point in time. For example, certain sectors will be prioritized based on higher volumes and influencers’ activity on those ads such as F&B, Beauty, and fashion. 

As we focus on the key challenges and concerns that the guidelines address when you watch content on Television, you can easily differentiate what is an advertisement vs what is content. Similarly, when you observe Print, most of the content is distinguishable from the editorial content. When a Print ad resembles editorial content, they need to declare that helping it to separate it from the main content. Hence, the distinction between content and ad should be clear to the consumers as they look at them in different ways. Post the clarity, it is their prerogative and decision whether they agree, disagree, or believe the ad basis the communication and the messaging of the advert.

Today, when you look at online content, it becomes difficult to distinguish between an ad and organic content. We believe that it is the right of consumers to understand this distinction and act upon it. Further, when something is an ad, it needs to follow a code of ethics and responsibility as you are aiming to get the consumer to buy something or believe in something through the process. 

Are these guidelines in line with the global benchmark influencer marketing tactics? 

Absolutely. ASCI is also a part of the ICAS (International Council for Advertising Self-Regulation) organization. It brings all the self-regulatory organizations on a common platform, across the world. Through this, we can discuss, and deliberate matters that are going on in other countries. With digital and social media, the concerns are quite similar across the nations. 

In other sectors, each of the countries is at a different level of revolution, so certain guidelines might differ but with social media, we observe more commonalities than the differences. Taking that as a context, it becomes a pivotal starting point for us to take references from them and understand what the guidelines have experienced in the other countries. This helps us to learn further and acts as inputs before we finalize the advertising guidelines for India.

As part of the initial work, the guidelines of other countries were also looked at. We churned and picked up points that we believed are valuable for the Indian market, in line with the global guidelines. You will see a lot of similarities in the guidelines for influencer marketing across the countries. For example, as one of the guidelines, we mentioned virtual influencers which is a new development. The countries that brought up their guidelines 12-18 months ago, do not have this as part of their regulations. Thus, these discussions help us to keep our guidelines updated with the new developments in the ecosystem.

What are the key challenges/concerns in implementing these changes on a large scale? Has the industry been receptive to the earlier draft of guidelines? 

A large portion of advertising has moved to digital. The digital-share-of-advertising content and revenue have been growing, significantly. Since it is a vast area to monitor, it has its own set of challenges. To cater to all sets of challenges, we are leveraging technology such as AR tools to track platforms for non-disclosures. We have identified partners so that we can pick up ads before even consumer complains to us. 

With the massive volume of advertising, I would consider these guidelines as phase 1. We will continue to update these depending on the developments and feedbacks on the way, leveraging our tracking mechanisms and make changes wherever necessary.

As for receptivity, we feel that the industry including the influencers has been extremely welcoming towards these guidelines. Their major queries were around certain clarifications which we have attempted to solve through the recent ones. We are pleasantly surprised at the acceptance that these guidelines have received.

Also read: Brands need to think of celebrity & influencer strategies as complementary to each other: Vineet Sharma

Are the new guidelines applicable across content formats such as video content, live streaming, and podcasts? How do you plan to enforce these guidelines? Do you have a follow-up mechanism in place?  

The new guidelines are applicable across content formats. Even for us, it is a journey as phase 1 of the influencer marketing guidelines. To start with, we will look at consumer complaints across sectors, as we move forward. 

As we commence, our focus would be more on the audio/visual format. We will extend this as we identify more technology partners to be able to monitor all of these. This is a perpetual process. Looking at the way forward, our focus would be on better tracking and monitoring systems as part of our plan.

What kind of redressal process do you have in place in case brands, agencies or influencers flout these guidelines? 

In such cases, we take it up ourselves as the complaints come to ASCI. 

As per our consumer complaints process, as soon as we find that there is a violation, we ask the advertisers to take down those posts, modify them, or in some cases upload a different version of the same.

Will the newer guidelines have an impact on the creativity/creative liberty of the influencer? Do you have any tips for them?  

I believe the creative people would not deem responsibility as a factor that hinders/reduces creativity. Any creative content can also be responsible- the two aspects should not be deemed as opposite to each other. Therefore, if some people say that creativity comes at the cost of responsibility, they might not be that creative, to begin with, or might be being callous in their approach. Quality creative people have existed for centuries, now. These guidelines have been there for decades even in the realm of advertising which is again a creative field as well.

When this point was raised during one of our listening sessions in the presence of influencers, they emphasized that the guidelines are pushing them to be more creative. They also shared that the guidelines will help them raise the bar and enable find newer ways to say what they want to communicate with the audience.

Creativity and responsibility are not opposed to each other, they need to go hand-in-hand

What will be the impact of these guidelines on advertisers? Will they lose out on potential customers with the new rules? How can it be mitigated? Your thoughts…

I believe that responsibly getting audiences should be an advertiser's priority. We have observed that the businesses which are responsible have witnessed greater success as these cohorts have their audience trusts- their consumers trust their brand as they have been accountable and responsible.

To my mind, responsibility is a way to getting better at your business while identifying closely with your target audiences. It is all about growing, reaching out to more people, and responsibly doing all of these. There is no dichotomy between the two.

My suggestion would be to find better ways to be creative and raise your benchmark.

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