Is it time for influencers to take the authenticity test?

Although social media is a private space, influencers have the responsibility to exercise caution and due diligence, say industry observers

e4m by Kanchan Srivastava
Published: May 3, 2022 9:09 AM  | 5 min read

Ogilvy UK recently announced that it would no longer work with influencers who distort or retouch their bodies or faces for brand campaigns. The step was taken as an attempt to combat social media’s “systemic” mental health harms. The decision also came after the UK government’s proposal to introduce “Digitally Altered Body Image Bill”.

Industry observers say influencer marketing, so long considered as the authentic side to marketing, may not be that authentic after all. A section of medical experts has also warned that the need to look good as influencers is causing obsession and mental health issues. It has been noted that young women are undergoing plastic surgery to get the ‘influencer look’, medical practitioners have warned. Many also point out the role of filters and editing apps that have contributed to this trend.

As per GroupM INCA’s India Influencer Marketing Report, the Indian influencer marketing industry is estimated to be around Rs 900 crore. The market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 25% till 2025 to reach a size of Rs 2,200 crore, the report says.

exchange4media caught up with industry heads to read their minds on this issue.

According to Sandeep Goyal, MD of Rediffusion, “Influencer marketing is currently fairly murky – inflated numbers, incorrect claims and creation of fictitious narratives and more. The UK intervention is a good example to emulate in India. But honestly, this is easier said than done. This will require a lot of will to enforce.”

Kosal Malladi, Vice President, Madison Digital, feels the topic is layered and a simple right or wrong would be doing complete injustice. “The one thing that needs to be followed in influencer marketing is calling out paid partnerships for what they are. And most influencers are doing just that. This was put into place on the basis of the ASCI guidelines for influencer marketing that came into effect in 2021. Putting out a legitimate claim is as much the brand's responsibility, as it is the influencers.”

As for Dhruv Jha, Co-Head, Mediabrands Content Studio, India, influencer marketing needs to be handled with utmost caution. “We exercise due diligence about our choices and associations as it is all about our clients, brand equity, and brand following. Mediabrands employs tools to identify influencers using both quantitative and qualitative parameters, and are in the process of further refining them.”

Jha underscores influencers must look at genuine narratives that are trusted by their followers.  

Jag Chima, Co-founder, IPLIX Media, agrees, “We need to bring our authentic selves to the table, only then can we do justice to the content.”

The impact that this section creates on consumers can be gauged by the fact that there are hundreds of macro, micro, nano influencers-cum-content creators who are part of this growing industry. The sector involves several Indian and international brands, especially in the cosmetics, personal care and grooming category.

On the question of accountability, Malladi remarks, “The market reality will force the industry to change. Does it mean that marketers do not have the responsibility of changing society? Absolutely not.”

Social media is all about choice, he says. “If an influencer does a touch-up through photoshop, that is a choice he or she is making. It probably makes them feel good about themselves. But what about the impact they have on people who are following them? But aren't people following them as a choice? Also, social media is a private space. People have the right to post what they want in their private space. But if influencers are monetizing it, does it still remain a private space? Who decides what is right and what is wrong?”

Talking about the options ahead, Malladi asks, “Would we put out a law that photoshop should not be used in a print ad or touch-ups should not be done on artists in a TVC? Similarly, influencers should have the right of choice.

“If users start calling out influencers for fake photos, influencers will change. And brands will adapt. A central body should not regulate how people interact with each other digitally.”

Role of brands

Industry observers say it is difficult to draw the line on what counts as ‘too much’ or ‘too little’ alteration. In many cases, brands and agencies are also involved in image alteration, industry people say.

“There have been numerous instances where agencies and brands have modified images in order to make them more appealing to the target audience. Hence, it is only fair that we also give influencers the same power,” says Triller India Vice President, Rohan Tyagi.

#NoFilter Gains Momentum

A number of influencers are now posting content with hashtags like #NoMakeup and #OwnYourScars.

“There is a shift towards presenting a more authentic version of yourself to the public. The conversations around this topic will automatically push the marketers towards making a change in their strategy of choosing the relevant influencers,” Malladi said.

Sharing the creator’s perspective, Saloni Gaur, known for her ‘Nazma Aapi’ content, says, “Changing looks or body shape is a personal choice. I have to be Saloni at all times without any alterations. That’s why the brands that reach out to me rarely ask me to change anything about myself and if they do, I politely decline.”

Lifestyle content creator Neha Doodles says, “Authenticity and transparency are the two things I cannot compromise at all. This stems from my personal experiences. I was a fat teenager who was insecure about her body. It was only when I grew up that I realized that so much of the media we consumed was photoshopped.”

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