(Photo: Bloomberg)
(Photo: Bloomberg)

Opinion | Online influencers: What’s their deal?

If they act as paid brand endorsers, shouldn’t the standards that the ad industry operates by also apply to them?

Social media users as consumer guides? They exist. Many with large followings online have even gone professional. Some of these “influencers" are millennials who’ve created a sensation on Youtube, Instagram and Facebook with their posts and opinions. Naturally, advertisers see in them a clever way to get their message across to online audiences, and are ready to pay them for it. If they act as paid brand endorsers, though, shouldn’t the standards that the ad industry operates by also apply to them? That’s the argument of the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), a self-regulatory body that wants to enforce disclosure and other norms on influencer recommendations.

It is easy to see why some influencers are resistant to the idea of regulation. Their social media appeal, after all, was personal, and many see their fans as part of a private club, communication with whom should be nobody else’s business. But advertising is advertising, even—or particularly—if the pitches made on behalf of companies by influencers are subtle. In fact, it’s the surreptitious promotion of brands that is the problem.

A large number of products and services that find their way into social media posts are actually sponsored, and this is a market estimated anywhere between $75 million and $150 million. Given how fast this advertising device appears to be catching on, it’s only fair that audiences are informed of such deals. Influencers, like other endorsers, need to abide by the ad industry’s usual rules of transparency. If a message has been paid for, we should be informed of it.

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