It’s a curious balance between celebrities and brand endorsements. What responsibility should a public figure bear when promoting a brand? There is a sensible side to this argument, which is that celebrities as influencers should avoid endorsing tobacco and alcohol brands. The responsibility that falls on the celebrity to be socially and morally responsible is not in vain. With thousands of young and gullible hero-worshipping actors and cricketers, it’s only natural to expect them to be holier than you in the public space, no matter their true selves behind tightly-knit doors. closed.
This was not always the case. Previously, many celebrities got away with endorsing liquor brands before they caught on in the public eye. Consider Dharmendra and Bagpiper Whiskey’s “Khoob jamega rang” advertising campaign. The brand even asked Sanjeev Kapoor, Shatrughan Singh, Sunny Deol, Shahrukh Khan, Akshay Kumar to represent it. It used to be that when actors endorsed a brand of drink, they got away with it. But not today. With easily traceable digital footprints and an indelible memory on social media, celebrities can no longer remain unscathed. Ask Akshay Kumar.
Khiladi Kumar, who had backed Bagpiper Whiskey in the past as well as a cigarette brand (Red & White), now has a whitewashed image. Today, he carries a super wholesome and disciplined personality, espousing the ethos of nation and character building through his movies and commercials. So when he recently decided to promote a brand of pan masala, all hell broke loose! Even if he wanted to make a lot of money from the Vimal elaichi commercial, his fans wouldn’t get it. What came out of it was an apology from Kumar and a donation of advertising revenue to a social cause. Shahrukh Khan and Ajay Devgn continue to support the same brand; either their reputation remains tainted or their fans don’t have high moral expectations of them or both. Anyway, like Amitabh Bachchan’s date with the pan masala company, Kamala Pasand, Kumar also walked away from the brand’s endorsement.
There is a social and moral responsibility expected of celebrities, especially in India, leading some to refuse addiction products while others still moolah. But what about the companies themselves? Since they operate legally, marketing their products is also within their rights. I mean, you’ll have to sell what you produce, and since addictive products can’t be advertised directly (India has banned alcohol and spirits advertising since the early 90s), advertising of substitution is the only option. To explain to the uninformed, surrogate advertising is when a cancer-causing, cirrhosis-inducing brand of tobacco, gutka, or alcohol rides on the heels of an innocuous-looking byproduct from the same company – sodas, mouth fresheners, glasses, CDs, etc. And even if the brand of alcohol or chewing tobacco is not blatantly mentioned, the brand recall is still created in the mind. Let’s accept that as long as the production and sale of alcohol, cigarettes, and now even marijuana in some countries is legal, companies, for reasons of unit economics, must also make sales. They run a business, people! And a business that hugely benefits states and central governments by removing significant excise duties.
Bridging the gap between the moral and economic aspect in such a scenario puts a brand manufacturer in a difficult situation. Alcohol companies have used “drink responsibly” campaigns while cigarette packs display gruesome images of mouth cancer. These companies and their customers also pay the ‘sin tax’, since they are considered harmful to society. If companies abide by and follow the regulations laid down by the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), how far should the moral responsibility of companies, concerned with increasing their turnover, really extend? It’s best for brands to avoid bending rules that aren’t there in the digital space, but using celebrities in print and TV ads is a legal marketing tactic to increase sales. If Akshay Kumar won’t, another guy will.
Not to mention, there are other so-called “sins” that celebrities shouldn’t enact. Take, for example, condom advertisements. A few years ago, Sunny Leone’s Manforce ad urging people to “Play this Navratri with love” found no love and a lot of hate. In fact, the Indian government banned condom advertisements until 10 p.m. so that children would not be influenced by them. Most kids today don’t sleep until 10 p.m. and know more about birds and bees than we did at their age, but who cares, right? Our governments watch Doordarshan, when the kids switched to Netflix. In India, condom advertisements also immediately become a promotion of sex rather than safer sex, for which they are specifically manufactured. Since they’re known to be all the rage, few mainstream celebrities (actor Ranveer Singh being one of the recent few) choose to endorse condom ads, even if there’s no “harmful” aspect to them. for health” associated with it. In my opinion, there are sometimes too many responsibilities imposed on celebrities too. The Indian public also has a very strong opinion on brands that celebrities endorse rather than pressing issues of national importance.
To sum up, on the one hand there are business matters, while on the other there are morals and the public good. How should brands navigate this conundrum? Think differently. Sponsor immersive digital content or trigger the health risks of its products through the direct or indirect marketing of socially responsible causes; create a reputation without causing a hubbub, take responsibility for promoting conscious consumption of the product. A smart and responsible brand will learn to walk a tightrope while being able to advertise defining characteristics while staying within the paradigms of rules and regulations. It doesn’t always have to be substitute advertising if branding agencies put their ideas together.
The writer is an author and a media entrepreneur. Opinions expressed are personal