Influencers disclosing what influenced them

The Advertising Standards Council Of India has recently announced guidelines to online influencers around social media advertising (PDF). There are 10 broad guidelines, along with some platform-specific recommendations.

Of the 10 draft guidelines, 7 pertain exclusively to disclosure!

The disclosure guidelines are very similar to what FTC (US’s Federal Trade Commission) mandates in terms of disclosure (PDF). But a bigger question is around the ‘why’ of these disclosures.

In my PR and advertising career in the agency side, I have worked with a LOT of influencers for many, many clients. Even when we had a clear mandate in the contract that disclosures should be made, at least one party doesn’t want them – either the client or the influencer!

The client doesn’t want them because it then, in their mind, reduces the impact of the promo. The influencer doesn’t want them because based on their own observation promos with disclosures tend to ‘perform’ poorly on vanity metrics.

In both cases, the intent is clear – they do not want the audience to know that a particular social media utterance has been induced by money.

But what about celebrities in advertisements on TV or in print?

Does Shah Rukh Khan start his Byju’s ad on TV by announcing that his utterance in the ad is influenced by money? Or, does a Ceat Tyre ad that has Aamir Khan as a crash test dummy has a mention somewhere that he has been paid to act as a dummy? The answers are, obviously – no, and no.

But there is a difference between the two instances – they are not comparable at all. That difference has to do with the nature of the platform, more than the specific endorsement itself.

The TV channel/program or the print newspaper/magazine is not a place owned by Shah Rukh Khan or Aamir Khan. But their social media profiles are owned by them.

On Twitter or Instagram, what you see from stars or influencers is akin to a life-stream – a set of thoughts about what they are experiencing, enjoying, thinking, ranting, etc. Amidst such a life-stream, suddenly if you notice a tweet where they ask you to buy a brand of cough syrup, should you assume it as part of the life-stream (that they tried it by chance and out of the goodness of their heart endorsing it in the hope that it may help someone else?)?

This is where things get murky.

For example, I had written about Shah Rukh Khan’s incredibly murky use of Twitter when his film Fan was releasing. One day, he tweeted that he was upset about vandalism outside his home. The media took it seriously and went ga-ga over it. Two days later, the same media reported that this was a promotional stunt for the film Fan because the film’s theme is about a crazy, obsessed fan of a film star.

The murky part is this: before and after the tweet about the vandalism, Shah Rukh had tweeted his love for his children and other real-life thoughts. So, his genuine thoughts co-exist right next to a tweet where he was merely playing along with a gimmick. If you trusted him about his tweet on his children, you may trust him about the vandalism too, and that he was genuinely upset about it. But when you come to know the truth, would you brush it off as ‘Oh, he is a star, he can do what he wants on his Twitter timeline’? Of course, you can, but that’s where the credibility for endorsements degrades.

Broadly, with big stars, we know in our minds that any and everything they say about any brand is done for a fee. The same is not true for social media influencers. Their calling card is their online followers, not offline popularity like that of offline celebrities who transport their offline popularity to online platforms. And their promotional posts co-exist with their life-stream, making at least one of them seem murky.

What is influence?

Most people assume that performing a call-to-action is a real influence. That is, if someone sells something when the sale happens, that is a good indicator of persuasive influence.

But this need not be true.

The Influence could happen in several layers.

  • You stop your scrolling and watch an ad/video by an influencer for more than 3 seconds.
  • You register the name of the brand being sold by an influencer.
  • You remember what the brand is good for (as per the sales pitch).
  • You keep in your mind the specific offer being sold (better price, better product, time-bound offer, etc.)
  • You search for the product/service online to know more.
  • You click on a link in the influencer’s post and see more information in a brand-owned online destination.
  • You notice and recall the brand when you see it in an offline store.
  • You remember the brand in context when you think of a related need/gap in your life.
  • And finally, you buy the product/service.

In short, there are multiple ways in which influencers could help across visibility, awareness, consideration, recall, and purchase.

If an influencer claims that she is happy with a product, how could that influence you when you see that it is mentioned explicitly as a paid endorsement vs. when there is no mention?

At a basic, human level, you may believe that the latter to be genuine, while you would consider the former with some strings attached.

Repercussions?

Can ASCI punish influencers who do not adhere to these guidelines? No, they cannot, since theirs is only a voluntary set of rules.

But the FTC has punished brands for not adhering to their guidelines.

In India, even as the ASCI is not authorized to do enforce their guidelines strictly, another Government department may, should they want to.

The Ministry of Consumer Affairs floated the ‘Central Consumer Protection Authority (Prevention of Misleading Advertisements and Necessary Due Diligence for Endorsement of Advertisements) Guidelines‘ (PDF) in September 2020 that reads very similar to the ASCI guidelines and includes all forms of advertising (without specifying that it doesn’t include any particular form – meaning, it includes social media and digital endorsements too).

Given that the Ministry of Consumer Affairs frames these under consumer protection, those guidelines may have more teeth in terms of enforcement than the ones floated by ASCI.

Seen from a social media influencers’ point of view, if they truly care for their individual credibility, disclosure help accentuate the, “Trust me when I say so” factor. Else, tons of people keep on poking every influencer with variations of, “Aye, kitna mila re?” and everything they say seems suspect. This gets particularly useful when the product or service costs serious money (investment, among other such topics) or has after-effects (healthcare, pharma, skincare products, etc.).

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