hile the virtual influencer industry is full of firsts, India spawned one of their own in the industry: regulatory standards. As of last month, India is officially the first country to create and implement advertising standards that virtual influencers must abide by across digital media platforms.
Digital media is known for quick innovation and a tendency to push the boundaries of existing platforms, which is especially true when it comes to advertising. Over the years, social media has completely transformed the way that users, brands and businesses interact with one another, leading to a much larger variety of methods to attract attention.
When influencers gained popularity as tastemakers on platforms like Instagram, a grander discussion about disclosure and transparency occurred shortly after. Now, as you know, any sponsored post or brand endorsement requires official disclosure through the use of hashtags like #ad to clearly disclose the branded partnership.
However, the advertising regulation waters get a little murky from there.
Virtual influencers are similar to influencers, but their follower experience is entirely different. Through the power of fiction, storytelling, and computer graphics, virtual influencers can take the shape of anything, be anyone, and have any interests under the sun––making them a powerful vehicle for storytelling and content creation.
With such freedom comes nuanced opportunities for brand promotions, or immersive stories one might not immediately understand as being that of a computer generation. As virtual influencers first picked up steam across social media and mainstream news, the familiar conversation about advertising transparency resurfaced: this time, surrounding the nature and purpose of virtual influencers.
In a digital medium, virtual influencers are completely interchangeable with human influencers. They promote the same brands, wear the same clothes, and have the same kinds of tastes. For users, this creates a seamless online experience from their offline reality to their virtual space. For brands, virtual influencers represent a new world of opportunity for creative and collaborative partnerships through inventive storytelling. However, that does not mean every virtual influencer partnership is properly disclosed.
The Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), established in 1985, is a self-regulatory voluntary organization of the advertising industry in India. It is a non-government body that monitors advertising methods, how they evolve, and how they’re affecting consumers.
In July 2021, the ASCI released a set of guidelines for virtual influencers and their brand sponsorships, called “Guidelines for Influencer Advertising in Digital Media.” These guidelines, which are India’s equivalent to the American FTC influencer disclosure guidelines, help inform consumers when an influencer is benefiting from a branded promotion.
These Guidelines are the first of any regulation to include a mention of virtual influencers. Per the ASCI Influencer Guidelines, virtual influencers are defined as “fictional computer generated ‘people’ or avatars who have realistic characteristics, features and personalities of humans, and behave in a similar manner as influencers.”
The ASCI Guidelines put responsibilities on the virtual influencers to expose their paid partnerships to their audience using easily identifiable disclosures. In addition to the regular human influencer disclosure requirements, the Guidelines also state that virtual influencers (and the creators behind virtual influencers) must disclose to consumers that they are not interacting with a real human being. This “virtual” disclosure must be up-front and made a primary focus so that no users could mistake the virtual influencer as a human person.
There is also a contingency on the virtual influencer disclosure. According to the ASCI Guidelines, part of the disclosure responsibility also lies with the advertiser––not just the virtual influencer. The advertising party also is given the executive power to tell virtual influencers to edit or delete advertisements if they do not follow the Guidelines.
“For clarity, where Advertiser has a material connection with the Influencer, Advertiser’s responsibility will be to ensure that the posted Influencer advertisement is in line with the ASCI code and its Guidelines. While the Influencer shall be responsible for making disclosures required under the Guidelines, the Advertiser shall, where needed, call upon the Influencer to delete or edit an advertisement or the disclosure label to adhere to the ASCI Code and Guidelines.”
This is an important step for the virtual industry. While virtual influencers visibly have all the similarities of regular human influencers, they are often left out or not officially recognized by governing bodies. Now, for the first time, virtual influencers have been recognized by a country as equals to human influencers, even if that includes additional disclosure requirements.
These regulations will affect how brands create partnerships with virtual influencers in India, and how studios in the country create virtual influencer storylines in the future. Imagine the creative ways a virtual influencer can tell their audience about their creation story and their non-human origins. Through constraint comes creativity. We saw a similar life cycle unfold through Miquela, with her storyline about discovering she was a robot made by the company Brud.
Will other countries and regulatory bodies follow suit?