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NEW DELHI : Social media influencers have been flouting advertisement guidelines with impunity, prompting the industry council to warn of stricter, perhaps government-led, action.

On 27 July, cricket captain Virat Kohli’s social media post praised Lovely Professional University (LPU) after 11 of its students made the Indian squad for the Tokyo Olympics. The post failed to use the paid partnership tag, violating the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI’s) influencer marketing guidelines.

A day later, on 28 July, Bollywood actor Jacqueline Fernandez posted a picture of herself on Instagram holding a bottle of Tresemme shampoo and conditioner—again without any disclosure. Fernandez has been promoting the Hindustan Unilever Ltd (HUL) haircare brand since 2016 as its brand ambassador.

Similarly, actor Kartik Aaryan, who has more than 20 million Instagram followers, did not use the paid-partnership tag or disclosure for branded posts for Engage deodorant and PepsiCo India-owned snack Doritos.

Both Kohli and Fernandez have now edited their posts to put a ‘paid partnership’ tag.

Emails sent to LPU, HUL and PepsiCo India were unanswered.

The internet is full of examples of big celebrities, with millions of followers across social media platforms, getting away with violations of ASCI norms that came into effect on 14 June. Actor Jahnvi Kapoor posted about Nykaa Hot Pink Sale while Akshay Kumar shared biotech firm Mylabs’s ad for a self-test covid kit—both without flagging their posts as collaboration/ad.

The celebrities mentioned above used promotional hashtags and tagged the official social media handle of the respective brands, but they failed to put up disclosures as mandated by ASCI.

Executives working for some of these brands argue that the ASCI guidelines can only be applied to a one-time partnership and not for influencers who have been official brand ambassadors. But ASCI does not agree.

“Principally, if an influencer has a material connection with the advertiser and posts about that brand on the personal handle, then disclosure label is required," said Manisha Kapoor, secretary-general, ASCI.

Violations are happening in one-time promotions as well, with celebrities posting about brands that they don’t officially endorse. Actor Fatima Sana Shaikh posted about hair grooming tool Dyson without any disclosure, which seemed like a one-off promotion. “If any influencer makes a post where there is no material connection with the advertiser, a disclosure label is not required. However, if there is any material connection (paid or free samples of products/barters, etc.) between the celebrity and the advertiser, then the disclosure label is required," ASCI’s Kapoor said.

ASCI said it will write to both the advertiser and the influencer seeking an explanation where there’s a violation. “In the absence of a suitable explanation, the consumer complaints council may give a recommendation against that ad. If the advertiser continues to be in violation, such cases may be escalated to governmental sector regulators for further action," Kapoor said.

Advertising experts said the guidelines are new and may take a while to gain wider awareness and better compliance. However, the onus is on big brands to ensure compliance.

“If brands make it clear to their influencers, be they celebrities or just regular influencers, that they must follow guidelines, then compliance will happen. Large brands and big influencers will have to lead by example," said Lloyd Mathias, business strategist and the former marketing head of HP Asia-Pacific.

Jitender Dabas, chief operating officer and chief strategy officer of McCann WorldGroup India, said influencers as a marketing tool is fairly new, as are the rules. “As things get clearer and more crystallized, it will be easier for everyone to follow. We will see fewer violations. These are teething troubles more than anything else," he added.

Vijay Subramaniam, group chief executive officer and co-founder at talent management firm Collective Artists Network, said compliance also depends on the ecosystem of the celebrities. “The agents should also know what the rules are. The overall ecosystem should try and get the hang of it. Moreover, like any new regulation, it will take time to come into effect," he added.

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