ASCI Influencer Guidelines: A Good Start But Must Evolve With Time

02 Jun,2021

Picture edited from a post on the ASCI social media handle


By Sanjeev Kotnala


Sanjeev KotnalaI enjoy such epic moments and milestones in the evolution of our marketing and advertising fraternity. It is heartening to see that ASCI, the Advertising Standards Council of India, finally launch the much-awaited and much-debated guidelines on influencer marketing. To be operational from June 14, 2021, simply put, it asks an influencer to clearly flag a sponsored/ paid-for content. Because, with great influence comes greater responsibility.


I love watching polarised views emerge and new debates taking birth. Points and counter-points are traded, and a few of the masks come down. Good, Bad and Ugly punches are exchanged without the famous tune. Everyone is like – if you want to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk!


Everyone agrees that it is the need of the hour. A few with the experience with past guidelines and their impact – wait with bated breath to see – how successful the implementation will be.

And that is where I too had many questions.


I was in a positive mood as recently ASCI had upheld my complaint on a product’s Covid immunity claim. Also, it upheld the complaint against an actor for violating celebrity guidelines.


So, over the weekend, I had a Zoom meeting with my dear friend and consultant Vermajee. Here is the summary of what we discussed over a cup of ID filter coffee.


Vermajee said that brands and marketers are finding new ways to communicate and influence consumer choices with technology. It is the right of the audience to know if the message is sponsored or paid for. Honestly, if it not self-regulated, someone will step in to regulate, and none of us wants it.


So, ASCI had to start somewhere someday. Influencer advertising was rising and was being misused. He questioned as to why do I expect the guidelines to be perfect. He reminded me that perfection is a myth and that guidelines and rules lag behind abuse and exploitations. So, there is no point in waiting for perfection and trying to close every loophole before implementation. According to him, full marks to ASCI for taking action in a time-bound fashion. I never knew he was that pro-ASCI. 



But, he also had doubts. He questioned if ASCI can really stop anyone from posting on social media without following the guidelines. ASCI expects peer pressure and influencers to set examples as a way to change behaviour. That is one of the most foolish things to expect.

Vermajee believes, and I too sincerely endorse, that ‘Nothing will happen unless the erring brand is held responsible for the actions of the influencers and celebrities. Unless infringement in one media cannot be penalised by debarring the brand from every other media. Pointing out that the life of a social media campaign post is shorter than the time taken to file a complaint, ASCI must act in hours and not weeks. Technology and AI usage to catch the erroring Influencer is a good step. Hopefully, these guidelines will not be another toothless tiger. But, frankly, he doubts if anything will happen.



So, it is not surprising that I had a sinking feeling about the whole thing.


It reminded me of the powerful sequence from Hindi cinema. Deewar, where Shashi Kapoor, the policemen aka ASCI, asks Amitabh Bachchan, the erroring fraternity member aka Influencer, to write that the content is paid or sponsored.


The influencer AB answers, which so cheese off with non-inclusive polarised guidelines that impact media differently, is full of anger and frustration in being single out for its success. The Influencer says, ‘Jao Pehle akhbaar se Sahi tareekhe se likwakar aao ki content sponsored advertorial hai editorial Nahi.’ ‘Go first make the newspapers write prominently that the content an advertisement, paid and sponsored and not an edit material.’



Maybe it will manage to push every Influencer to transparently declare their association and or conflict of interest while posting about the brand. It is going to be a tough one. As the moment such a declaration is made, the possible impact of the message drops. Who will pay for this decreased efficiency and lowered revenues of the influencers? The truth is, it is in the interests of the brand that such associations are not publicly acknowledged. So, in case of guidelines violations, it is brands that should be penalised.


There is another point of view and a possibility, that the market will self correct itself. And in some time the impact of labelling a content as paid/sponsored etc on its reach and effectiveness will get neutralised. When that happens and the audience will no longer have to guess the association, it will have a net positive impact. 



How is ASCI going to control foreign influencers and celebrities from not following the guidelines? Social media is, after all, global with no boundaries. I am not sure how it can control and object to a tweet that did not originate on Indian soil or an Indian Influencer. So, will it shift the focus from Indian influencers? Vermajee reiterated, unless you do not hold the brand primarily responsible for it, the problem will remain.



Is the influencer guidelines different from the celebrity guidelines? Should they be different? How are we sure that the audience can differentiate and advertisement and content when it comes from a celebrity but fails to do so when it comes to the influencers? And, when does an influencer become a celebrity? Does the number of followers, frequency of the post, or the quantum of the monetary transaction define the status?



The error and mistake need to be curbed at the start.


ASCI processes are long-drawn. The change-modification demand is in reality a request. Unless ASCI is willing to haul some brand all the way – across the legal challenges- and make an example of it- trust me, the violations will remain.


Vermajee, taking another sip of coffee, clarified his position. “I am all for the influencers and celebrities doing due diligence and getting the paperwork right. Misinformation should be avoided at any cost. So, I would welcome, if the onus of guideline implementation is firmly on the brand.”



ASCI has failed to demonstrate the intent and implementation of such guidelines in the case of newspapers. The inclusive educational approach to shape the narrative across media, creative developers and celebrities have failed. We continue to see the best of the brands and marketers flouting the guidelines. And ASCI still thinks such an education outreach initiative in influencer advertising will show any different results.


Why can’t all member bodies ensure that everyone associated with the creative development and media functions has taken the ASCI course on guidelines?



But life must continue. One must believe in the intent and the ASCI promise to ensure that the guidelines evolve with time. It is in the interests of consumer, influencers, agencies, platforms and advertisers.



While licking the last bit of coffee, Vermajee shared what he was thinking. We have seen the arrogance of these social media giants. They arrogantly address parliaments and committees. They challenge the rules of the nations and even suggest what rules the country should have. They believe in creating and expecting their own rules and guidelines to supersede everything else. Everything under policies, privacy and freedom of expression- how will ASCI work with them?


What will be the role of the social media platform?


Will the social media platform on ASCI request or complaint closing the account of an errant influencer not following the guidelines? Don’t we know the answer!



So, enjoy the feel-good moment and clap for the ASCI milestone of influencer guidelines. Wish ASCI all the best. And let us contribute by taking the pledge to religiously follow the guidelines. At least we can individually do so.


Sanjeev Kotnala is a senior business strategist and educator. He writes on MxMIndia every Wednesday. His views here are personal


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