For a change, cricketer Mahendra Singh Dhoni found himself without a smart quip, or a helicopter shot, when buyers of an Amrapali project in Noida bowled tough questions at him on Twitter. A brand ambassador for Amrapali, Dhoni chose to break his ties with the builder when the buyers asked him to keep its commitments.
Though one of the most dramatic instances of accountability being thrust on a celebrity, it’s not the only one. Earlier this year, the Delhi government’s health department wrote to actors Shah Rukh Khan, Saif Ali Khan, Govinda, Sunny Leone, and Ajay Devgn that they should not endorse pan masala products. In March, the department issued a compliance notice to Devgn for appearing in a surrogate advertisement of a tobacco product. Last year, notices were sent to Amitabh Bachchan, Madhuri Dixit, and Preity Zinta for endorsing Maggi noodles, then alleged to have harmful ingredients.
The heat on brand ambassadors is causing a change, as heat tends to do, in the way celebrities choose what they endorse. “Celebrities are getting more conscious before endorsing a product as it affects their brand value. The government may not be able to touch them, but the public does major damage by rejecting them as well as the products they endorse,” says advertising guru Prahlad Kakkar.
Much of the rejection happens, as in Amrapali’s case, on the social media, which has erased distances between consumers, brands, and brand ambassadors. Says Indranil Das Blah, chief operating officer, Kwan Entertainment & Marketing Solutions, which manages the endorsements of several celebrities: “These days everyone is aware of what’s happening to products, courtesy the social media. Consumers have come closer to the brand. So, celebrities need to do their checks before endorsing a product or service.”
As the social media does it bit, the government is doing its own. In order to protect consumers, a Parliamentary Standing Committee, on April 26, recommended a jail term of up to five years and penalty of up to `50 lakh on celebrities for being part of misleading ads. “The Central Consumer Protection Council’s view was that celebrities should be responsible for misleading advertisements,” consumer affairs minister Ram Vilas Paswan said recently.
Expectedly, not everyone agrees with Paswan or the Parliament panel, certainly not a celebrity manager like Blah. “It is a terrible step,” he says. “Celebrities are not responsible for the faulty products. It is extremely wrong to consider them at fault.”
Kakkar, too, criticises the move. “It’s a knee-jerk reaction. Brand ambassadors are not producing the product, still they are being held responsible.” The problem, according to Kakkar, is with licensing. “If you have a problem with a product, ban the product, take away the licence. If you think tobacco is harmful, ban it. If alcohol is harmful, ban it. Politicians think celebrities should be held responsible for faulty products just because they get a lot of money.”
However, an official of Maxus, a group M company, who did not wish to be named, says celebrities cannot be absolved. “Celebrities are not responsible for the making of the product. But they create demand for it by promoting it. So I would say maybe celebrities should do certain checks like whether the product has ISI certification or not, or whether the regulators have confirmed the authenticity of the product or not. ”
There’s another side to the story, which is seldom told. Gopichand, a star badminton player in his time and now a celebrated coach, once refused to endorse a cola brand because he thought it was hazardous to health, especially for children. Some actors, such as, Kangana Ranaut, Ranbir Kapoor, Nandita Das, Randeep Hooda, and Chitrangada Singh have refused to endorse fairness creams.
So, as in most aspects of life, perhaps the secret to being a good brand ambassador lies in being a good citizen and a good human being. But those things do not always win against good money.