Influencers 🤝🏽 Government

Big-name creators are interviewing ministers or issuing public advisories in ads with little in the way of disclosures. What’s next? Also in today’s edition: after the Adipurush washout, it looks like only Hollywood can save the day for multiplexes.

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Are we in the Influencer Golden Age? Indian content creators started with humble, relatable vlogs, then graduated to subtle brand plugs in their videos. But then, the lockdown happened, and the so-called creator economy just exploded. We’re practically drowning in videos, podcasts, YouTube sketches, brand collabs, and entire series of branded content of all genres. Insta celebs have launched brands of their own or they’re showing up in web series and films. So, it was only a matter of time before they made their way to one of India’s biggest clients: the government.

Going Live with Government

BeerBiceps/Instagram

BeerBiceps aka Ranveer Allahbadia has been making videos on YouTube since 2015. This is his very first video, where he introduces himself as a 22-year-old engineering graduate and fitness trainer and talks about how he got fit. For two good years, his videos largely focused on fitness, with a smattering of dating advice.

But today, only one of BeerBiceps’ top 10 videos by views is fitness related. His fifth most popular video, with over 5.5 million views and counting, is from just 11 days ago. It’s an interview with India’s minister for external affairs, S Jaishankar. You’d think this is a massive departure from health food recipes and Tinder tips. But it’s in line with Allahbadia’s more recent emphasis on interviews and explainer videos on current affairs and culture.

In the last two weeks, Allahbadia has also done interviews with Piyush Goyal, who heads two cabinet ministries, and Rajeev Chandrasekhar, minister of state for the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY). The interviews are fairly long and touch on several subjects, from thoughts on Web3 and cryptocurrency to India’s foreign policy challenges to messages for India’s youth. But all three have sections plugging the achievements of the Narendra Modi-led government, notes on its leaders past and present, and defence from common criticism of those in power.

In short, these interviews seem to be branded content, just like a lot of other influencer videos. But the interviews don’t have any clear disclosures and appear “organic”. And all this is happening in the run-up to India’s general election scheduled for 2024.

These videos are also getting attention because it seems to be the first time that the central government is doing “branded” content with independent creators. And because there was no clarity on how exactly these government functionaries were appearing on a podcast talking about their political party, it got a little complicated.

Apar Gupta, lawyer and founder of the advocacy group Internet Freedom Foundation, pointed out that MeitY had issued a formal document to engage an influencer marketing agency. There were speculations that Allahbadia’s influencer management firm Monk Entertainment may have been officially appointed to make content for the government. If so, could it be the government was using public funds to market itself before the general elections?

This formal document (pdf) was issued in April, calling for social media or influencer management agencies to work for MyGov, a government platform run by MeitY. This is what the document says about the scope of work:

“The Agency will be required to provide services at every stage of the influencer marketing campaign - from discovering the right mix of influencers based on the campaign objectives, through influencer management, assisting with content creation and media planning & execution, to analyzing and reporting on a campaign’s success.”

- Request for Empanelment (RFE), MyGov

MyGov has released several tenders in the past for creative agencies and advertising firms. But this was the first time since it was set up in 2014 that it issued a call for influencer management firms.

Viraj Sheth, co-founder of Monk Entertainment, says the firm is not empanelled with MeitY or any other ministry. It’s unclear which agency, if any, was picked to fulfil this tender’s requirements. Getting that information will probably require a written request to MeitY under the Right To Information Act.

“MyGov gave us access to these ministers. Our podcasts are always produced by our in-house team,” Sheth told The Impression, adding that MyGov didn’t pay them or pick up any production costs, such as shooting or location costs. “We have a team of videographers and editors who take care of the production aspect of the podcast,” Sheth said. “We thought it would be interesting to have the cabinet ministers speak directly to the youth. Our goal is to be able to provide a platform where we bring in successful folks from various industries and present it to our audience.”

Fellow influencer Raj Shamani has also done interviews in the past two weeks with Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Nitin Gadkari, Union minister of road transport and highways. Madhya Pradesh is going to the polls later this year.

Allahbadia’s episodes have done reasonably well: his interview with Piyush Goyal has over a million views, and the one with Chandrasekhar has over 200,000. Shamani’s interview with Gadkari has over two million views. And Sheth says Monk Entertainment is planning more for BeerBiceps. “We will be bringing on more political leaders from various other parties on our podcast as well.”

Another government collaboration to hit the papers this week was a campaign against misleading financial advice, featuring top finfluencer CA Rachana Ranade. This campaign, printed on the front pages of top newspapers, was odd because it seemed to warn against “fake” and “self-proclaimed experts”, asking people to only trust reliable advice.

But why would Ranade, an online finfluencer herself, feature as the face of this campaign? Markets regulator Sebi has already acted against other finfluencers for dispensing investment advice without mandatory registration (I wrote about it in this edition of The Impression).

YouTube didn’t pick a Sebi-registered investment advisor to front its campaign. To add to it all, the ad features a number of government logos, including MeitY (again!) and, inexplicably, the G20 Summit hosted in India. While this is an ad for YouTube (Ranade has done a previous campaign for the platform), there are no disclosures on whether there are any formal or informal contractual arrangements between Ranade, YouTube, and MeitY. MeitY’s Chandrasekhar quickly issued a clarification saying the campaign wasn’t an official ministry endorsement.

Ironically, the Advertising Standards Council of India issued guidelines on influencer marketing in February last year (pdf). Among its recommendations is using a “Paid Promotion” tag on YouTube or a “Paid Partnership” tag on Instagram, along with words like “Ad” or “Promotion” in captions.

But do you need to use this tag when no money changed hands for content and marketing? Sheth says MyGov simply gave Allahbadia access to the ministers. Allahbadia’s videos also now have a disclaimer saying these were part of an “unpaid” collaboration with MyGov.

There’s certainly no payment mandatory for access, but anyone in the content (or journalism) business will tell you that access usually comes with the expectation of mutual benefit. The interviewee gets softball questions that let them embellish their image, and the interviewer racks up the views and an audience. In such cases, the need for disclosures becomes a murky decision. Besides, such softball interviews with influencers or even journalists are hardly new. Startup founders, film actors, and established industrialists have been appearing on YouTube channels like BeerBiceps to promote themselves for some years now.

But what’s clear is that India’s creator economy has become important enough to become useful for political campaigning in the run-up to crucial elections. The BJP isn’t the only one appearing on viral YouTube channels. During his Bharat Jodo Yatra, opposition leader Rahul Gandhi did interviews with independent influencers, including Samdish Bhatia and Kamiya Jain (Curly Tales). Comedian Kunal Kamra interviewed Shiv Sena leader Sanjay Raut when Uddhav Thackeray was chief minister of Maharashtra.

Of course, it gives you a leg up in an election if you already run the central government and have the funds to empanel agencies for the job.

Mission: Rescue Cinemas

Shad Islam/Unsplash

This has not been a good month for the Hindi film industry and for cinemas. T-Series’ mega film Adipurush, reportedly Bollywood’s most expensive film at ₹600 crore, has flopped. Latest estimates suggest it made less than ₹300 crore at the box office. Theatres have now dropped prices for its 3D screenings to as low as ₹112 per ticket. But given widespread criticism of the film’s dialogues and visual effects, it looks like cheaper tickets aren’t going to bring in audiences. This is a lost cause.

That’s going to hurt cinema chains, especially the recently merged PVR Inox. The company’s stock was at a high on the eve of Adipurush’s release in anticipation that audiences would throng the theatres. Since then, the stock is down by about 8%.

Now, until the Shahrukh Khan-starrer Jawan and Salman Khan-led Tiger 3 release later this year, no Hindi film rivalling Adipurush’s size, scale, and hype is releasing anytime soon (one could maybe make an exception for Ranbir Kapoor’s Animal). What cinemas have to look forward to immediately are a bunch of highly anticipated Hollywood hits, including the latest instalments of Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones and Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible franchises. That’s both a good thing and a bad thing.

The good thing is that Hollywood films have been more reliable at the box office than Hindi films lately (I wrote about this in detail in this edition of The Impression). But the problem is that tickets to 3D and IMAX-format Hollywood films tend to be far more expensive than those for Hindi films. Moreover, these films run more in multiplexes than in single-screen theatres. PVR Inox (and others) have been looking to get back to profits and, particularly, to pre-pandemic footfalls and occupancy rates. To do that, they need massy films with lower ticket prices and higher sales volumes. PVR has been offering lower prices and sales on tickets lately in an attempt to woo audiences.

But for this to really work, PVR Inox (and other cinemas) need more Prabhas and Shahrukh Khan starrers, not big-budget Tom Cruise IMAX productions. Where is the big-budget Bollywood crowd-pleaser? Maybe only Hollywood and Bollywood’s OG superstars can rescue Indian cinemas now.

What’s funny is that this exact same scenario is playing out in US theatres. A series of summer film releases have flopped at the American box office, including Pixar’s Elemental and DC’s The Flash, with collections below pre-pandemic levels. Just like in India, theatre owners there are relying on ageing superstars Ford and Cruise to spin their magic and get the cash registers ringing.

If you’ve seen Pathaan, there’s a post-credits scene that jokes exactly about this. Shahrukh Khan and Salman Khan, resting after a long fight on top of a train, joke about maybe taking a break after doing this backbreaking work for 30 years. But in the end they conclude, dripping with sarcasm: “bachchon pe nahi chhodh sakte” (can’t leave it to the kids).

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Last Scroll Down📲

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Video game supremacy: Studios just can’t get enough of video game IP. There is an animated series in the works on the pandemic-era breakout success Among Us at CBS Studios, Variety reported. Among Us is made by an independent gaming studio and only became popular in 2020, two years after it was first launched. The Wall Street Journal had argued that this is “golden age” of video game IP, and that films and shows based on globally loved games do a lot better than less appealing stories, such as Western folk tales that many cultures aren’t familiar with.

We want more: Direct-to-home company Tata Play has been selling OTT subscriptions to its TV channel subscribers. Now, it also wants the cord cutters. Tata Play MD & CEO Harit Nagpal told Mint that its OTT aggregator platform Tata Play Binge is now open to use for anybody with a smartphone or a smart TV, not just Tata Play subscribers. It’s also bringing in other premium OTT services like Apple TV+ to its bundle and even offering games. Bundling is the most important sales channel for subscription-based streaming services in India; it’s getting more and more important for premium OTT services (read more about it in this edition of The Impression).

Are you lonely? Short-video app Chingari will take your call now. The platform has rolled out a paid one-on-one video calling feature with what seems to be adult entertainers, Inc42 reported. Chingari defended itself, saying this was not a pivot to adult content but just one in a basket of features on the app, including web3 applications with its proprietary GARI token. Whether this is a pivot or not, Chingari will have a tough battle for success in NSFW content. Instagram, Snapchat, and even Twitter are way ahead in this niche too.

Screwing the client: Google may have been fooling its ad clients. New research has found that 80% of video ads Google serves on third-party websites violate its own terms and conditions,The Wall Street Journal reported. Google charges a premium but places these ads in poor-quality positions, such as muted videos or in auto-playing videos on the side of a website’s main content. Google has denied the claims, but large media agencies like UM Worldwide and clients like the US’ Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services are concerned.

No money for news: These are tough times for news companies everywhere. ABP News shut down two regional channels, ABP Ganga and ABP Sanjha, and fired 47 staffers without prior notice, Newslaundry reported. The channel has been struggling for a while. Meanwhile, Canada has passed a new law directing Meta and Google to pay domestic news companies for links to their articles. Both companies have said they will probably restrict access to news from Canadian outlets on their platforms, including Google search results and the Facebook news feed.

Trumpet 🎺

T-Series has dropped yet another remake, sorry, “recreation”. And it’s getting it from Indian and Pakistani fans of Ali Sethi and Shae Gill’s Coke Studio Pakistan hit Pasoori, a rare achievement in these polarised times. It appears T-Series has officially licensed the song (presumably from Coke Studio) and has approval from its singer Ali Sethi.

T-Series isn’t new to getting hell for remakes. In April 2020, it sprung Masakali 2.0, a “recreation” of the cult classic song composed by AR Rahman and sung by Mohit Chauhan. Audiences had criticised that song too, as had Rahman himself (but subtly) in this tweet.

But, the fact is, remakes are almost always a safe bet, which is why they’ve become a big part of the successful music produced these days. Take a look at T-Series’ own YouTube channel. Of their top ten videos by views, six are remakes or recreations of older songs, including ‘90s Bollywood hit Aankh Maarey and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s Aankh Uthi Mohabbat Ne Angrai Li. Clearly, remakes work. Even Sony Music India’s biggest hit on YouTube is a recreation of a Bengali folk song. Universal Music India’s biggest YouTube hits are Bollywood remixes from the 2000s, when the Hindi music industry first rode the remake high.

So, if you’re annoyed at the Pasoori remake, that’s fine. It’s already served its purpose; people are talking about the song and the upcoming film it’s in, called Satyaprem Ki Katha. But take a close look at that song you’ve been humming along to lately or working out to: it might be a remake.

That’s all this week. If you enjoyed reading The Impression, please share it with your friends, family, and colleagues. And please write to me anytime at [email protected] with thoughts, feedback, criticism or anything you’d like to see discussed in this space. I'd love to hear from you.

Thanks for reading, and see you again next Wednesday!

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