The proposed changes to the law include jail term and a fine.

Is it fair to punish celebrities for appearing in misleading ads
Voices Advertising Friday, September 16, 2016 - 18:41

By Anand Kumar RS

Since the time PV Sindhu and Sakshi Malik won medals for India at the Rio Olympics, their phones have probably not stopped ringing. Many companies are likely to be on their way to sign them up as brand ambassadors. For now, it is all right for Sindhu or Sakshi to sign on the dotted line in these endorsement contracts and make hay while the medals shine.

 But what if the government pushes forth the proposed changes in the Consumer Protection Bill which proposes jail term and a fine for celebrities featuring in misleading advertisements for products that they endorse? The intention behind the move is to make celebrities responsible for their endorsements. “Consumers tend to get influenced by the promise made by the celebrities in ads” is the argument behind the proposed move.

As a marketing professional, I have never been very excited about using celebrities in ads to push a product. In B-schools every year, a popular project students carry out with the blessings of their professors is to find out the effectiveness of celebrities in an ad campaign. That the study is done regularly conveys that the jury is still out on that.

It is commonly accepted that the use of a celebrity helps break the clutter and makes the ad stand out. However, this is “lazy creativity” and there are many other ways to do so. Using celebrities is a low hanging fruit for those with big budgets and is often deployed as a creative strategy when one can afford to foot the bill.

 In my understanding, there are three types of celebrity endorsements. The first is when a celebrity is used to promote a product which is related to what he/she is doing. This is a direct endorsement. For example, a Sachin or a Kapil Dev promoting Boost- an energy drink for children. When Kapil says – “Boost is the secret of MY energy”, there is a clear communication to parents that if they want their child to become like Kapil, they should be giving Boost to their child. 

The second category is when brands use a celebrity as a face in the ads and the product may not be related at all. For example, Amitabh Bachchan featuring in Binani Cement ads.

The third is when the product is not related to the celebrity’s profession but companies tap into the credibility of their stardom to push their wares. Though this is not common, we have started seeing this of late. For example, when Cadbury’s wanted to make a comeback after they got hit by the “worms inside chocolate” tornado, they dialed in Amitabh. Amitabh featured in the commercial as “himself”. In that commercial, he was clearly putting his personal credibility at stake to communicate to consumers that with the many steps taken by the company, “All is well” with the chocolates!

Many questions arise when we speak of celebrity endorsements. Do the celebrities who extol the virtues of brands use the product/service themselves? Have they first checked if the claims that they are making are true? In the case of endorsing investment projects, do the celebrities vouch for the credibility of the promoters?

The thinking behind the proposed changes seems to have come after many instances of consumers landing in the pit, once they had invested their hard earned money in projects which had big stars endorsing the same.  However, there have been many cases where consumers have lost money in projects where stars were not at involved at all!

It is difficult to believe that consumers are so gullible that they buy a product just because a star endorses it. This premise seriously underestimates the intelligence of a consumer. If just a star endorsement can make a product tick, all those mobile phones with celebrity brand ambassadors must be outselling the iPhone, isn’t it?

But whatever the case, punishing celebrities for the wrong claims made by a company just because they featured in the ads seems too much.  A consumer is expected to do his/her bit before deciding to buy a product/service. More so in the case of big investments.

 Shifting the blame on MS Dhoni just because a real estate project he endorsed didn’t see the light of the day is sheer escapism. We should consider celebrities featuring in ads as enhancing the entertainment quotient and nothing beyond that. At the same time, as a socially conscious individual, a celebrity should be careful about lending his/her name or face to a product which has certain concerns – remember, Gopichand who refused to feature in Cola ads in his prime? They should also do more homework on the credibility of the brand/promoter before signing on the dotted line for the next 1 crore endorsement deal. If not, they might find themselves in a sticky situation if the proposed changes are made to the law.

Anand Kumar R.S is a management professional by week and an avid blogger by weekend. He writes on politics, business, and films.

Note: The views expressed here are the personal opinions of the author.

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