Siddharth Rout, visiting professor of advertising at our journalism school, taught us two unforgettable things. First that it was all right to talk about menstrual cycles without dropping the voice a notch. He talked of an advertising campaign that had something to do with the copywriter finding used sanitary towels in a bathroom. Bizarre story. But Rout spoke about it as he would about finding a used toothbrush, or cigarette butts. That set our young, mid-1990s minds free.
The second unforgettable thing he taught us was the word pansy. A cigarette brand’s advertising, he said, went wrong because the brand ambassador was later rumoured to be a pansy. Rout was not homophobic; it’s just that cigarette smokers, bred on the Marlboro Man’s machismo and of other models, couldn’t identify with a pansy.
That’s the eternal bane of all advertising that relies on brand ambassadors. Most brand ambassadors turn out to be human beings, with exceptions of sketches such as Air India’s Maharaja and the Amul girl. And human beings have very human failings.
The most striking of which came to light when Maria Sharapova called a press conference to say she had tested positive for meldonium, a banned substance.
Tennis fans shivered, for she is a formidable player, having won a few grand slam tournaments. The brand world shuddered, for she was the face of many. Nike, Porsche, and Tag Heuer scrapped endorsement deals with her. The United Nations dropped her as its goodwill ambassador, but few might care about that -- not much money in it.
Interestingly, Sharapova continues to enjoy support in Russia, the country of her birth, where they call her Masha out of affection. The country’s traditional soft drink maker invited her to be its brand ambassador. A Russian confectionary company released a lollipop that looks like her. It’s sold under the slogan: 100% Sharapova, no meldonium.
Alas, Russia is not so big a market for Nike, Porsche, and Tag Heuer (neither perhaps for the UN’s goodwill) that they would stick by her. The rest of the world’s psyche, singed by athletes from Ben Johnson to Shane Warne, won’t accept a dope-tainted brand ambassador.
It is a big blow to the world of celebrity endorsements. Sharapova is not the best tennis player ever. Even in her own generation, the Williams sisters, Justin Henin, and a few others, often got the better of her. She did not quite live up to the promise of that first Wimbledon title she won at the age of 17.
Now nearly 29, Sharapova is not the prettiest tennis player ever. Here we tread on a highly subjective matter, but, oh well, there were Gabriel Sabatini and Anna Kournikova. However, as a combination of playing skills and looks, Sharapova was unbeatable in her generation, and therefore the highest paid female athlete, earning four times in endorsements what she earned from her winnings on the tennis court.
She is also a formidable businesswoman. She has her own web app, and a clothing line that’s present in at least 30 markets. She has more than 1.6 million followers on Twitter, 15 million on Facebook. She is quite the package. So when she falls, the grass is bound to get trampled. She was so high that, if she fell, she would fall hard.
On a smaller scale on the global stage, but no less in India, several other brand ambassadors have similarly gone wrong. What do you do if the face of your brand gets charged with killing poor people sleeping on a pavement, or of killing an endangered animal? What do you do if he or she just flops? The cricket field and Bollywood make the highest paid brand ambassadors. These are also two of the most fickle occupations, subject to vagaries of selection and audience taste. In general, we play badly more often than we play well. We make more terrible movies than we make good ones. Then there are those who think they are speaking out their mind – such as on the issue of intolerance – and for some reason their endorsement deals do not get renewed.
Yet, brands chase ambassadors, despite only debatable evidence that they help sales. Maruti got Amitabh Bachchan, one of the most sought-after brand ambassadors, and his son Abhishek to endorse the Versa. Do you remember Versa? No? That’s the point. Didn’t work.
What’s more, no brand ambassador is able to protect a brand if it is thought to be less than good. Nestle’s Maggie has had recognisable faces asking people eat the noodle. But when it had to fight for its reputation, it had to fight alone.
However, if brands are determined to get an ambassador, they should get Alok Nath. This is not a joke. The actor, with his benign face and smile, is the face of some small brands, for products such as wheat flour to steel rods. And, despite his fiery turn as a young man in Attenborough’s Gandhi, you can’t imagine him doping.
The views by the author are personal. He tweets at @suveensinha