Pierce Brosnan is “distressed” that his image has been used to promote a product “that is dangerous to one’s health”. It’s still not clear if this belated reaction is because the former James Bond actually skipped the finer print before signing the dotted line to promote a pan masala product or realised that the commercial agreement has caused considerable damage to his image or he has been “misled”. Earlier this month Brosnan earned considerable flak from various quarters, especially social media, after advertisements appeared both in television and print. Brosnan, on Friday in a statement, has said that he was given to understand that the product was a “breath freshener/tooth whitener”.
Be that as it may, the Brosnan episode leads to bigger questions: Should celebrities be more responsible when they endorse products? Should they enquire — as it seems that Brosnan did not do — more about the product they are to endorse? Should they be morally or ethically responsible in the choices they make?
Public opinion might be divided on this, but the government feels that celebrities should be responsible — and the government is right on this one. The government believes that celebrities can impact change in society and feel that this “power” should be used responsibly.
A few months ago, the Centre accepted a parliamentary panel’s suggestions to hold celebrities accountable for appearing in misleading advertisements. If things go through, celebrities who make unrealistic or false claims in advertisements could face up to five years in jail, in addition to a fine of Rs50 lakh.
Is the government going after celebrities because they are “soft targets”? A more constructive way of looking at it would be to say that the government is (i) asking celebrities to be more responsible in their choices that have a direct, and telling, effect on the public, and (ii) through this it is indirectly sending a message to companies and advertisement agencies to not gloss over facts or exaggerate while promoting their products.
If anything the government’s efforts —through this amendment to the consumer protection Act — reflect the influence and power celebrities have in our society.
To debate whether or not celebrities are influential is doltish. The impact celebs have is evident in the success of various government health campaigns involving celebrities.
Holding celebrities responsible does not mean that Amitabh Bachchan, who is the brand ambassador for Gujarat Tourism, can be hauled up if you don’t see a lion while on a safari in the Gir National Park or if a faucet is not working in a Toran hotel. A celebrity could be held responsible if he/she promises that the food endorsed is safe to consume, has the said nutritional benefits, or, as in the case of cosmetics, has the said benefits, but it is proved that these claims are false.
In a society with deep systemic and cultural prejudices the impact advertisements have cannot be understated. Products like a fairness cream exploit this prejudice; the “coolness” of holding an aerated drink feeds on it, and; the “importance” of owning that “family” car or two-bedroom apartment in the city survives on this. Add to this the impact these messages have when said by a celebrity!
The amendments accepted by the government come at a time when many celebrities, in addition to misleading advertising campaigns, have championed surrogate advertising. Seldom have Bollywood stars withdrawn or disassociated from a product on knowing the side-effects or hollowness in the promises they have made to promote a product. However, there are celebrities who have shown rectitude by refusing to endorse dodgy products — but they are few and far between.
It is not the job of the State to hold a moral or ethical compass towards society, but it is forced to do so when eminent citizens and celebrities exploit the gullibility of the public for personal gain.
The author tweets as @vijucherian