Do All India Bakchod and The Viral Fever need to disclose material connection between themselves and advertisers?

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All India Bakchod has the notable distinction of mainstreaming the otherwise foul Hindi/Urdu word ‘Chod’ (The F word in Hindi/Urdu slang), so much that propah print publications and TV channels have no qualms in saying/using ‘Bakchod’ these days, in India.

Last week, they added another distinction to their illustrious list – they started a new ‘advertising’ agency of sorts, called Vigyapanti (to rhyme with the C-word-panti? #wellplayed, I say!). It’s a fantastic extension (Afaqs: “AIB’s advertising wing ‘Vigyapanti’ is no laughing matter“)and given that they want to work with start-ups (who seem to be raising money almost exclusively to keep media companies alive), it looks like a great fit from a tone perspective… what AIB is best known for.

The first campaign was for the start-up Truly Madly.

It is very AIB – well scripted (lyric’d) and very funny. It is also an interesting take on Stockholm Syndrome, with ‘captor’ replaced by ‘creep’. And makes a good point, in context, to Truly Madly’s brand proposition.

Across the street from AIB, TVF (The Viral Fever) Qtiyapa (again, the C-word-pa) released another episode of their hilarious, ‘Tech conversations with dad’ series. One of them, earlier, referred to Airtel’s internet plans. This one refers to Flipkart’s Big Billion Day 2015 in a fairly exclusive and explicit manner. There are even screenshots of Flipkart app, though, when the dad says he wants to buy atta, the son dissuades his father, instead of plugging Flipkart Nearby.

TVF’s Arunabh Kumar denied that the video was a paid spot for by Flipkart. He didn’t elaborate, but I assume that means the video was not initiated by Flipkart either. Though it seems a bit hard to believe that TVF just happened to pick Flipkart’s Big Billion Day sale to use in this series, given their phenomenal reach in the online video space in India (to put it in perspective, that is like The Times of India mentioning, in their city supplement, ‘The event happened in the Ritz Carlton’, without Ritz Carlton paying for the mention. It usually is, ‘The event happened in a prominent city hotel’ if there’s no payment/advertising – not that there’s anything wrong with this; they are merely making the best use of their reach.), I’d gladly give the benefit of doubt to TVF and Arunabh and take his word on face value.

Now, for some context.

The Truly Madly video was uploaded in the YouTube page of Truly Madly, not AIB (that has a million+ subscribers). But, the video made a very prominent mention that it was made in association with AIB.

The TVF video was shared on TVF’s Facebook page (a million+ fans).

Let me assume, for the sake of this post and argument, that the TVF video was initiated by Flipkart and paid for too. In fact, if that was the case, I’d strongly urge Arunabh to listen to Anant Rangaswami’s free advice, get a release order from Flipkart and do a TV release of the ad. And then enter it for awards.

In both cases, the connecting glue, besides entertaining content that they are known for, was the brand names they have built for themselves. So, if an ad agency had made the Truly Madly ad, it would have remained ‘the Truly Madly ad’. But now, it is ‘TrulyMadly presents Creep Qawwali with All India Bakchod’, with AIB logo prominently in the bottom left corner. Imagine a conventional ad agency asking a client, ‘Can we put our name in your TVC?’. The reaction would be unprintable.

In case of TVF’s Flipkart spot (remember our assumption, please), it is a TVF video in every way – their usual actors (really good ones, at that) and part of their existing series.

What the brands gained here is not just funny, entertaining content that’s also monumentally contextual, but also the recall and visibility that comes with using the TVF/AIB names. In other words, the existing audience base of TVF and AIB, respectively.

In other, other words (!), that’s like AIB and TVF using their reach to help these brands. Much like The Times of India using its reach to advertise a brand for a fee.

When The Times of India does this, readers are usually aware of what the paid-for ads are and what ‘news’ is, even though, in the city pages, the distinction is less obvious, thanks to the group’s extremely clever media and placement plans. The bottomline, in general, is that The Times of India is expected to disclose paid-for news and placement and actual ‘news’ that is being printed for the sake of reporting. The difference, of course, is the amount of control a brand has when it pays – it can say literally what it wants, in a media vehicles that has enormous reach.

Now, the question I’ve been pussyfooting for so long around all this context: do AIB and TVF need to disclose (monetary consideration) when they are pushing a brand for a fee? In simpler terms, do they have to offer to viewers, ‘This is a paid ad.’?

When I posed this question on Twitter, the first sound logic was presented by Karan Talwar (@BollywoodGandu), who said that media publications offer news and hence need to disclose paid news/ads. But comedy isn’t news and so there’s no need to disclose paid spots. Meaning… media publications deal with news, based on which people learn, gain, understand, comprehend etc. and a paid spot by a brand shouldn’t color that learning in a particular direction that is advantageous to the brand/category. Instead, by demarcating the ads, people should be able to decide, *after* knowing that something is a paid spot and then make up their own minds.

In simple terms, it is about disclosing bias – ‘Folks, we were paid to put this in the paper you read. We’re not responsible for the brand’s words or your action from it, so take care, ok?’.

So, if AIB puts its brand name behind a Truly Madly promotional video, no matter how entertaining it is, should it disclose that it, besides being very entertaining, is also paid for, by Truly Madly?

Many responses to my tweet said that the ‘paid-for’ part is obvious and implied. Like products being promoted in a film. Or an actor advertising a product in print/TV.

This, again, is a good argument. To many, the brand-initiated’ness is fairly obvious.

So, let’s stick to the logic of TVF and AIB not disclosing brand-led work and just sharing entertaining content that uses their name to gain online traction.

In that case, one shouldn’t expect bloggers to disclose paid brand push too, right? But US Federal Trade Commission has a mighty detailed guide on disclosures for endorsements. FTC has no reach in India, of course, but what it says is applicable at least in principle, and I can see ASCI (The Advertising Standards Council of India) someday adopting guidelines from FTC, for India.

Among other things, FTC’s Endorsement Guides say,

if there?s a connection between an endorser and the marketer that consumers would not expect and it would affect how consumers evaluate the endorsement, that connection should be disclosed. For example, if an ad features an endorser who?s a relative or employee of the marketer, the ad is misleading unless the connection is made clear. The same is usually true if the endorser has been paid or given something of value to tout the product. The reason is obvious: Knowing about the connection is important information for anyone evaluating the endorsement.

Say you?re planning a vacation. You do some research and find a glowing review on someone?s blog that a particular resort is the most luxurious place he has ever stayed. If you knew the hotel had paid the blogger hundreds of dollars to say great things about it or that the blogger had stayed there for several days for free, it could affect how much weight you?d give the blogger?s endorsement. The blogger should, therefore, let his readers know about that relationship.

To a question about financial consideration being ‘obvious’, FTC has this to say,

Isn?t it common knowledge that bloggers are paid to tout products or that if you click a link on a blogger?s site to buy a product, the blogger will get a commission?

No. Some bloggers who mention products in their posts have no connection to the marketers of those products ? they don?t receive anything for their reviews or get a commission. They simply recommend those products to their readers because they believe in them. Moreover, the financial arrangements between some bloggers and advertisers may be apparent to industry insiders, but not to everyone else who reads a particular blog. Under the law, an act or practice is deceptive if it misleads ?a significant minority? of consumers. Even if some readers are aware of these deals, many readers aren?t. That?s why disclosure is important.

For more, see this page.

Imagine, in the near future, AIB is approached by a Mutual Fund brand to promote their new offering. I’m sure AIB would be legally mandated to add the ‘Mutual funds are subject to market risks…’ disclosure, but given their irreverent tone, I’m sure they’d do this innovatively too. But, in case of ‘advertising’ mutual funds, in however entertaining a package, the result expected is broader awareness of the fund, and eventually, more people signing up.

Like more people signing up on Truly Madly. And more people trying Flipkart’s Big Billion Day sale. In the end, brands want people to buy. And like a Times of India, an AIB or TVF convince people to so, with the power of its brand recall (as a media channel that produces consistently engaging content) and with the power of its content. So, if purchase consideration is the ultimate aim, directly or indirectly, I’m assuming it’d be imperative for the set of influencers between the brand and its prospective customers to disclose any connection.

I fully agree that this is comedy… largely harmless. But, it was pure comedy when it was not promoting a particular brand. When it started to, then it becomes brand advertising, entertaining or not… comedy or not. You could perhaps put it under ‘native advertising’. And this is what FTC has to say about native advertising, in videos (in particular),

FTC staff has expressed the opinion that under the FTC Act, product placement (that is, merely showing products or brands in third-party entertainment or news content ? as distinguished from sponsored content or disguised commercials), doesn?t require a disclosure that the placement was paid-for by the advertiser.

The AIB video for Truly Madly is a ‘sponsored content’ (or ‘disguised commercial’), in my view.

The TVF video (now, finally, assume it is not paid for, by Flipkart), is ‘merely showing the brand’.

It goes without saying that the state of disclosures, in India, is in a very primitive state. Take one look at how brand hashtags are trended on Twitter, and you’d know how many ‘influencers’ push them for a fee. The joke goes that more than an Aadhaar card, anyone with more than 5,000 followers in India is hell bent on getting his/her own rate card (and add ‘social media influencer’ in their Twitter bio) to work with brands (no, I still don’t have one!). In this scenario, it may be unfair to isolate AIB and TVF to offer/for not offering disclosures.

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