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Stricter guidelines for health and wellness products are needed

influencers, marketing, ads, advertising, product placement, sales, advertising, advertisements, digital content creators, social media

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The recent controversy between Mondelez subsidiary Cadbury and well-known social media influencer Revant Himatsingka over his criticisms of some ingredients in Bournvita has brought centre stage the emerging issues over the role of influencers in the burgeoning health and wellness market. In this case, a legal notice from a big food corporation prompted Mr Himatsingka to take down the video. It is possible that his claims about Bournvita may be worth an investigation by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India. But the larger question of an influencer’s qualifications to comment on a health and wellness product — whether as criticism or endorsement — calls for greater attention from the government.

In January this year, the Department of Consumer Affairs issued guidelines for paid endorsements by celebrities and social-media influencers, including their avatars, to disclose their material connections while endorsing products. It stated that the endorsement could be qualified as an advertisement, a sponsorship, collaboration, or partnership in a clear and prominent manner that was hard to miss. This applied not just to videos but to limited space platforms such as Twitter hashtags and so on. The new guidelines also require the endorser to have personally used the products or service they are endorsing. These guidelines are well-timed, given that, by the government’s own estimation, the size of the social-media influencer market in India was Rs 1,275 crore and is expected to grow to Rs 2,800 crore by 2025. The department has reckoned there are now more than 100,000 social-media “influencers of substance”.

Overall, these guidelines are unexceptionable, though it may be hard to track whether the influencers concerned have followed the structure to have actually used the product. But, as the Bournvita controversy has highlighted, the health and wellness business demands a more stringent regime when it comes to celebrity or influencer endorsement. This market is a product of growing middle-class awareness, especially among the expanding cohort of affluent youth and children, and covers everything from over-the-counter pharmaceuticals such as cough syrups and pain medications to personal care products, Ayurvedic and herbal potions and tonics to body-building powders and power drinks. In the absence of standards, social media influencers or celebrities play a disproportionately large role in creating markets for these products.

An outright ban on such endorsements is undesirable, and is probably likely to provoke workarounds in the form of versions of surrogate advertising and surreptitious promotion anyway. It may be more helpful if the department were to define products under the health and wellness category and specify additional and equally prominent cautions to check with medical specialists before the product is used. Too many seemingly benign products contained ingredients that could be harmful to some users. Certainly, any product that is marketed as a health food for children should be subjected to such additional rigour. It may also be important to extend stricter guidelines to advertising in general in this category as well since health and wellness is emerging as an expanding area for advertising spending too.

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