By trolling cricketer MS Dhoni on Twitter for the delays in the completion of Amrapali Saphire housing project and forcing him to quit as the brand ambassador of the Amrapali group, the buyers have brought to centre stage, the issue of accountability of celebrities for the products and services that they endorse.
Last year, after the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India ordered the recall of Maggi noodles, all three film actors that had endorsed the product - Madhuri Dixit, Preity Zinta and Amitabh Bachchan -had come under attack and there were attempts to hold them legally liable for the quality of the product. A Muzzafarpur lawyer had filed a case against them before the chief judicial magistrate, for promoting the product and the Food and Drug Administration, Haridwar, even served a legal notice on Madhuri Dixit for endorsing Maggi.
However, the buyers of Amrapali Sapphire deftly used the social media to send out a clear message to the cricketer that he has to take responsibility for the actions and inactions of the builder that he had endorsed for years. The # Amrapalimisusedhoni hashtag that went viral on Twitter with nearly 70,000 impressions, told the cricketer again and again that “you have a moral responsibility. You are the brand ambassador”.
The campaign not only served to embarrass the cricketer, but also forced the traditional media to highlight the plight of the home buyers. The end result was a promise of positive intervention in the matter by Dhoni and an assurance from the builder to resolve the grievances of the buyers at the earliest. Even the Noida authority promised to call a meeting of the builder and the buyers to sort out the problems. Dhoni may have now resigned, but he cannot shirk responsibility for the fact that he, as the brand ambassador, prompted many to invest in the housing project. Already, the tweets reacting to his resignation are reminding him of that.
This is a new trend, wherein, the consumer is not using the law, but the power of the social media to hold the celebrity accountable for the performance of the brand that he endorsed. To put it differently, consumers here used a combination of the new and the old media to effectively create a public opinion and thereby build public pressure on the celebrity to act.
This, I am sure, is only the beginning and we will now see more and more consumers using the new age media to call to question, endorsements of celebrities and even campaigning for boycott of those celebrities, who make false or misleading claims, or support unethical practices or promote unhealthy foods. I refer here particularly to celebrities, who, for the sake of money, promote junk food, despite the fact that today they are ranked above tobacco as the world’s leading driver of preventable, non-communicable diseases.
Whether they are cricketers or actors, they have a huge fan following and the power to influence consumer choice. It’s for this reason that they are paid hefty sums to put their stamp on a product or a service. However, their ability to swing consumer preferences also puts a tremendous responsibility on them –ethical, moral and legal – with regard to the products that they endorse. But unfortunately, barring a few honourable exceptions, one does not see them exercising that responsibility while promoting products and services. And it’s time this trend changed.
Having said that, I must say that it’s time we developed a set rules and regulations on celebrity endorsements, encompassing the entire media -- both new and old. The very social media, which empowers consumers, could be a vehicle for celebrity endorsements, both overt and covert - it’s already happening in many countries and we therefore need to have adequate safeguards to protect consumers.