Trouble in paradise for influencers with new ASAS guidelines?

A new set of guidelines have been created by the Advertising Standards Authority of Singapore (ASAS) on marketing communication appearing on interactive and social media.

This follows feedback on misleading and false depictions of products online.

The guidelines were developed in consultation with social media agencies, public agencies, multinational companies and members of the public to set the standards of ethical conduct and establish levels of disclosure required for sponsored messages appearing on social media. The guidelines will also prohibit false reviews engagement and dictate the clarity of the purchase process in e-commerce.

According to Ryan Lim, founder of Qed Consulting, the original intention of the guidelines was to establish the foundation and baseline on the ethical use of digital and social media - especially on the area pertaining to content and influencer marketing. Lim and his team were also part of the organisations invited to review the guidelines along with other industry players such as Mediacorp and SPH. He said:

The guideline is not meant to be restrictive, but rather a reference point to help marketers and organisations understand and decide where the ethical boundaries are.

Lauding the guidelines, he added that effective marketing and communications need not violate the guidelines, thus it can hold to a much higher ideal while staying good and effective.

"The general idea of the guidelines is to protect individuals and members of the public who are not as discerning when it comes to viewing content online due to lack of exposure or training,” Lim added.

“Although it is much harder for organisations since now they are now required to function at a much higher standard than before, it will also bring about better and ethical executions to marketing,” Lim said.

Justin Peyton, chief strategy officer at Digitaslbi, APAC said over the years, as influencers have grown in importance, many brands have leveraged on the trust that they have with their followers, in a manner which appears to be impartial. However, more transparency is needed.

He added though that the in requiring more transparency of the relationship between influencers and brands, some "influencers may see a reduced role in the marketing mix".

This is because this image of trust and impartiality has been one of the key advantages over celebrity endorsements which, aside from costing more, is also something that consumers are for the most part sophisticated enough to understand is paid for. Nonetheless, not all is lost for the influencer community. Peyton said:

An influencer’s reach and authority in key subject areas will protect the ones who produce quality content for brands because paid for or not – there will always be a consumer demand for quality content from brands or otherwise.

While this shakes up the ecosystem, he added that it will be for the best as consumers will not only get greater transparency, but it is likely they will also start to get higher quality content from influencers at they need to work harder to prove their value to brands.

Also supporting the new guidelines is Preethi Sanjeevi, regional chief marketing officer and head of consumer insights, VML Southeast Asia and India. She said it is only responsible of ASAS, as an industry body, to step up guidelines against misleading advertisements that impact consumer trust and the industry at large.

“The guidelines, at their core, reflect the basic advertising principle of transparency; that there must not be false representation and or obfuscating of disclosures,” Sanjeevi said, adding:

Singapore has traditionally been recognised as a nation with freedom of speech, albeit with caveats such as respecting the judiciary, and maintaining the social fabric both racially and religiously. When applied to the online space, there are laws in place to ensure this, such as the Sedition Act and Penal Code.

Sanjeevi added that this comes at a time where consumers are "getting tired of traditional media, and also recognising the pervasiveness of online and social media advertising" along with its power in reach and velocity especially in instances where sensational content is involved.

“This is definitely an encouraging sign and we continue to be supportive of industry developments that are invested in putting the digital consumer first,” Sanjeevi said.