There are two moral/legal issues at stake in the Maggi controversy. The first is straightforward. If Maggi wilfully sold products that contained excessive amounts of lead, then it has clearly violated the law and must face action. Even the moral discussion is simple enough. If the company did not test the products before they went out or if it did not use an effective testing technique, then it is morally liable. If, however, Maggi is telling the truth and it did make every attempt using the best technology to test the products and found no lead in the noodles, then there is a degree of moral ambiguity.
It is the second moral/legal issue that is more complicated. Even since the controversy broke, there have been demands to hold the film stars who advertised and endorsed Maggi liable for the allegedly high levels of toxic lead in the product. This demand is certain to make news because the stars involved are big names: Amitabh Bachchan, Madhuri Dixit, Preity Zinta and others. Moreover, it has been taken seriously enough by the courts for FIRs to be registered and both health officials and ministers are talking about action against the stars.
For advertisers and the stars themselves, it is the second issue that is most worrying. In many ways the Indian advertising industry (like the Indian fashion industry) has become an extension of Bollywood. Most major ad campaigns look for celebrity endorsers. In ads where models would once have been used, they have been replaced by film stars.
The ad agencies use stars because it seems to work. Cadbury bounced back from a damaging scandal about worms in its chocolates by hiring Amitabh Bachchan to reassure consumers that the product was safe. The water purifier industry has benefited hugely from Hema Malini’s endorsement.
As far as the stars are concerned, endorsements represent a welcome revenue stream. Many (if not most) now make more money from corporate sponsorship of one kind or another (print ads, commercials, live appearances, etc.) than they do from acting in movies. Over a decade ago, Shah Rukh Khan, one of the pioneers of this trend, told me in an interview, “I no longer have to accept bad films just to make a living. I make my money elsewhere and make the films I really like.”
This is as true of other big stars. Aamir Khan and Hrithik Roshan, for instance, make fewer films than big stars would in the Seventies or Eighties. In contrast, Salman Khan, who endorses fewer products, found himself obliged to accept more movies so that he could make a living.
For most celebrities (and this includes cricketers as well) endorsements are just an easy way to make money. It doesn’t matter whether it is a respected multinational, a brand of paan masala or a dodgy builder, they will happily lend their names to a campaign if the price is right.
The legal issues involved in celebrity endorsements are simple enough. If a star believes that a product is safe, and has sufficient grounds for doing so, then it is hard to see how he is legally liable. In the case of Maggi, if the authorities allowed the product to be sold for decades then — should it be found harmful — it is difficult to see how stars are any more liable than the generations of health inspectors who allowed Maggi on to the shelves. At least the health inspectors had the means to test the products. The stars, like the rest of us, trusted the government when it said that Maggi was safe.
But there are some cases where there could be legal liability. Stars and cricketers sometimes endorse dodgy builders. If a star endorses a residential scheme before the building is constructed, then he should be liable if the building remains unfinished or does not live up the claims made for it.
The moral issue is the real minefield here. Indian stars usually have no views on the products they endorse. They will take money from paan masala manufacturers, arguing that if a product is available for sale, then that’s good enough for them. Should they not be concerned with the health implications? Similarly, they will endorse fairness creams on the same grounds despite the growing campaign against such products.
In the West, on the other hand, stars will think long and hard before lending their names to any product. And they will back out if they feel the brand has deviated from their core principles. For instance, Natalie Portman threatened to stop appearing in Dior ads after designer John Galliano made anti-Semitic remarks. She relented only after Galliano was sacked.
Many of the demands made in the aftermath of the Maggi controversy are silly. There is no need to arrest Amitabh Bachchan or Madhuri Dixit. But the controversy does mark a watershed in the relationship between Bollywood and the ad business. Perhaps stars will now stop seeing ads solely as a source of money and worry about the nature of the products they so readily endorse. If a building endorsed by a star collapses or if a tobacco product has dangerous health implications, the star’s liability goes beyond the letter of the law. It strikes at the heart of his/her credibility and the way he or she abuses the trust of the fans.
(The views expressed are personal)