Truth in advertising is a big deal but do Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan and Virat Kohli constitute the biggest problem that bedevils advertising in India?
We are a star-struck nation. It's no surprise our ads are equally star struck. But the double-edge sword of celebrity means that we are just as eager to knock them off their pedestal as we are to worship them. We buy water filters because Hema Malini recommends them but we resent the big bucks she get paid for her endorsements.
We worship our celebrities but we also want to remind them that they are celebrities only because we choose to worship them. It's a strange circular relationship and the new bill to make celebrities accountable for the products they endorse perfectly reflects this.
According to The Indian Express, the revised consumer protection bill wants to make any "false or misleading" endorsement which is "prejudicial to the interests of any consumer" punishable with a jail term of up to two years and a fine of Rs 10 lakh for the first offence and five years and Rs 50 lakh for the second and subsequent offences. And the onus would be on the celebrity brand ambassador to prove their innocence. "Mistaken belief shall not be a defence," says the Law Ministry draft according to the report.
Is the celebrity actor thus rendered almost equivalent to the actual manufacturer? And good faith is no longer good enough? When Maggi noodles wanted to be fun and convenient and nutritional they roped in stars to deliver the 2-minute message in 30 seconds flat. Madhuri Dixit could be the good mommy. Preity Zinta could do the fun part. And Amitabh Bachchan could deliver the voice of God gravitas. Does that mean if there's too much lead or MSG found in your Maggi, the trio should be hauled to jail?
In a way placing the burden on their celeb shoulders, lets the rest of us off the hook. As Rajyasree Sen wrote you have to be "slightly dim to think that instead of making three chapatis for your child or pouring him or her a bowl of oats" you can snip open a packet of Maggi and conjure up a "nutritious meal thanks to some Madhuri Maggic".
Of course a celebrity should be responsible for all the things he or she says even if some clever ad writer wrote them. But does it mean that they need to run their own lab tests on their products to ensure that all those nutritional goodness claims are 100% true? Ad man Santosh Desai says, "This is just the least important aspect of the controversy, and everyone's jumped at it. And if they are at fault what about the TV channels and newspapers?" But the celebrity, being larger than life, is an easy target and a more TRP-friendly one than some faceless corporation.
Celebrity endorsements are big business – about Rs 4000-5000 crore and growing. According to media reports, Shah Rukh Khan made Rs 202 crore in 2014 from endorsing as many as 22 brands. Amitabh Bachchan can demand anything up to Rs 2-3 crore for one day's shoot.
For the rest of us aam aadmis trying to make ends meet on a salary, that sounds obscene and we relish the schadenfreude when they get their comeuppance. But we also do not remember the sweat and tears and years of work that went into Amitabh Bachchan becoming Brand Bachchan and commanding those astronomical prices. And is there a difference between a celebrity who is there only as an actor in a commercial like any other model and the celebrity actually lending his/her brand to the product?
But we also do not remember the sweat and tears and years of work that went into Amitabh Bachchan becoming Brand Bachchan and commanding those astronomical prices.
Of course if Complan claims that it could make children grow "two times faster" the celebrity endorser should ask for proof. Is there a study that actually shows drinking Horlicks can make children taller, sharper and stronger? Or what about the sleight of hand inherent in marketing a breakfast cereal as fat-free while staying mum about its sugar content?
"Agree that celebs should accept endorsements with a certain amount of responsibility. But it is unfair to make them accountable for products/ads as the subject is technical and requires sound understanding of science as it's related to the ingredients of the product and consequent claims," says Madison World chairman Sam Balsara according to PTI. If our Food and Drug Administration stumbles while doing its job, the celebrity should not become the scapegoat.
Of course all of this sidesteps a larger ethical question. Imagine that the likes of a Shah Rukh Khan sells us a Fair and Handsome cream for men implying to all gullible men out there that the product is their key to better jobs and a better love life. If you use the product and still remain a loser should you be able to haul Shah Rukh Khan over the coals for enticing you shamelessly with false promises? Or is the real shame that in this day and age, a megastar still feels the need to endorse a fairness cream?