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Activist Aamir troubles Coke

Can stars afford to damage the brands they endorse? Soumik Sen finds out.

india Updated: Apr 18, 2006 15:19 IST
Soumik Sen

It was Coca-Cola which sought a meeting with Aamir Khan when they saw him all over the papers championing the cause of Narmada even as Arundhati Roy publicly challenged him to first stop endorsing the cola. It is Aamir himself who disclosed this at a press conference he called, saying he will meet Coke representatives to “understand” the situation. “If there is a problem, we will try and find a solution and if talks fail, I will end the contract,” said crusader Aamir.

Which is good for Brand Aamir, but may not go down so well for Brand Coca-Cola.

The brand is said to pay the star Rs 6 crore for his contract. Coke ads have always been prestigious; worldwide, only a chosen few get to endorse it. Aamir’s ads have been a talking point, but the new equation between Aamir and Coke is not something the brand would have bargained for. At a time when stars and endorsement are so closely connected with each other, it highlights the question: do social responsibility and endorsements clash? “Of course not. I have made my stand clear on the issue and I have spoken to Coke officials regarding it,” says Aamir.

Stars endorse brands, but some stars may be too hot to handle. When self-imposed keepers of morality like Youth Congress leader Rajesh Brahmbatt lay down rules to companies like Toyota, Titan and Coke to remove Aamir Khan posters when selling their products, the trade-off is between solidarity with a brand ambassador and damage to brand image.

“As an individual Aamir has the right to voice his concern,” says Prasoon Joshi, the man who not only created the memorable Aamir commercials for Coke, but also penned lyrics for his films Rang De Basanti and the upcoming Fanaa.

Standing by Aamir, the regional creative director at McKann Eriksson says, “He doesn’t do anything for effect, so it has to be an issue he feels passionately about, else he wouldn’t have endorsed it. Those who are raising fingers should check their facts before making allegations. When the government recognises Coke as a legally operating unit then why should people base their charge on perception?”

Sunil Joshi, who handles endorsement careers and projects for artists across the board (best known for his handling of Amitabh Bachchan’s career), says that the adverse reaction to Aamir by political parties is because of a different reason.

“It’s almost as if the political celebrities are insecure of a celebrity from a different platform upstaging them and effigy burning is anyway part of our political functioning style,” he says.

The image of a star painted is far from that of an activist campaigning for a cause, and hence activism is looked as a radical diversion of ‘job profile’.

So are stars in the country expected to pose, smile, endorse and eventually shut up?

It’s the safe way out. And it is the global way.

Artists like Sean Penn or Ashley Judd, as a result of their strong political leanings, don’t find much favour in the endorsement market. That trend may creep into India as well, as socially conscious stars may not be looked at as favourably, unless they stick to ‘safe’ causes like polio eradication, HIV awareness, which great efforts in their own rights, don’t ruffle the feathers of the money bags of the industry – namely the brand promoters. And though a Shabana Azmi or a Nandita Das dare to raise issues, they don’t have much to lose at the endorsement front anyway.

The corporate clout, which might soon be evident once Aamir Khan forgets the six crore endorsement fee that he is attached to, is of course a new thing. Something that stars rely on more than film fees. But the corporate cushion comes with a hidden agenda.

Contracts sent out to models and celebrities have morality codes, which would imply that when a star finds himself in an imbroglio like getting caught sniffing coke( the powder), the agency can safeguard its interests.

But what happens when a star decides to go in an support issues like legalising prostitution, or fighting the social stigma associated with homosexuality? Will that lead to imminent roadblocks when it comes to getting brand fits for the star?

Says Preeta Singh, the MD of Percept Dmark, who handle careers of artists as well as sports stars, “As long as they don’t court political and controversial issues. And if they do take up a social cause it has to be in sync with the brand he represents from an earlier contract. A sudden U-turn can create turbulence for the brand, and I think in future he needs to be more mindful,” she adds.

And Aamir has done exactly that for Coke, however honourable his intentions may have been. Ironically, even for a matinee idol, every good deed has its repercussive effect.

His stance and stature may just work out better at the box office, but if the endorsers prefer to distance themselves away from him, we may just see him more frequently on screen to balance the prospective loss in endorsement fee.