Celebrities in India today perhaps make much more out of commercial endorsements than out of their acting or sporting careers. It is no wonder that this income stream is very powerful and lucrative. From soft drinks to elaichi, creams to cars, celebrities have a disproportionately high presence in Indian advertising. It is well understood by advertisers that having a celebrity in the ad gets instant recognition and recall, justifying the million-dollar deals. And celebrities, like hungry folks at a buffet, make the most of it.
So, what is the problem?
The issue is that for a few (ok, lots of) rupees, celebrities throw caution, and in some cases ethics, to the wind. At the Advertising Standards Council of India, last year alone, we processed over 100 ads featuring leading celebrities, that were deemed misleading. Only in a handful of cases, could the celebrities demonstrate that they had done any sort of due diligence with respect to the products they endorse. Under the new Consumer Protection Act, the government can hold these celebrities accountable for the claims in the ads, fine them, or even suspend them from future endorsements. The only escape for them is if they can show that they have undertaken a due diligence exercise to seek legal or expert advice on the veracity of the claims they endorse. Even with stringent penalties, we see celebrities going ahead with all sorts of dubious endorsements without any formal due diligence. Is this callousness or misplaced confidence? Will they only wake up after a big celebrity is publicly fined or suspended?
Brands too need to urge their endorsers to undertake this due diligence because being shamefaced on one campaign has a damaging impact on all the brands being endorsed by that celebrity.
Beyond legal implications, the debate on ethics and morality is something that celebrities often find themselves embroiled in. Consumers today hold celebrities accountable for every word they utter, every move they make. When actors and sportspeople on strict fitness regimens endorse junk food and soft drinks, they are called out. Because it signals that the celebrity is quite willing to compromise their personal convictions for money. That while they eat only organic avocados, they encourage their fans to gorge on unhealthy stuff. A new generation of consumers is calling out these obvious contradictions. And even if one is a Badshah, a Shehenshah or a Khiladi, such backlash from audiences can be nerve-wracking.
In fact, celebrities are now recognized for the endorsements they reject as much as for products they endorse. A leading cricketer who refused to endorse a soft drink any more or actresses who walked away from fairness product ads gained new fans who applauded their stand. Rejecting certain brands added to their own personal brand image. Celebrities need to think hard about the connections and conflicts between their own personal brand and the ones they endorse.
Maybe then we will see greater due diligence, and fewer post facto apologies and fee-returns on goof-ups that appear obvious to everyone, except to the celebrity and their management teams.
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