The consumer is king. Or so we are told. As consumers these days, we are spoilt for choices. This also means that when it comes to brand loyalties, we are notoriously fickle. Companies, therefore, use all kinds of advertising — surrogate or otherwise — to beat competitors and corner as much mindshare as possible. Bollywood actors and cricketers are all roped in to endorse products and goad us to buy them. This is pretty much acceptable as the consumers know upfront that huge sums of money have been paid for product endorsements and one usually takes the ‘This is the best...’ lines with the proverbial pinch of salt. I, for one, can sit through hours of advertisements just to enjoy the pithy one-liners and watch the stars do everything under the sun for a slice of my mindspace. Be a little discerning, and you will not end up buying things you don’t need or want.
But what happens when an organisation like the Indian Medical Association (IMA) gets into the product endorsement game? What happens when the Secretary General of the IMA states on record: “Fresh fruits are expensive and these days you don’t get them in some smaller towns. In such, cases these [Tropicana] juices do help”? The IMA, which ‘represents’ over 175,000 doctors, has signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with PepsiCo India’s snack foods arm Frito-Lay to promote two of the company’s products: Tropicana juice and Quaker Oats. This is not the first time that the IMA has endorsed a product: it certified Reckitt Benckiser’s Dettol soap, Procter & Gamble’s Pampers diapers and Eureka Forbes’ water purifiers. But with this MoU, the IMA enters the food and beverage (F&B) market. The IMA is also joining hands with the cola giant’s ‘Get Active’ programme, which plans to promote physical activity among children in 80 schools.
Besides advertising, IMA’s support will also be communicated through labels on Tropicana and Quaker packaging. The deal is “non-commercial”. But PepsiCo India will be helping IMA in sponsoring events. After surrogate advertising, it now seems we have to contend with surrogate funding. In a way, it would have been better if the IMA had put a price on its support and declared it publicly. At least, we would have got to read that fact on the ‘packaging’.
So what did the IMA check before signing this MoU? “We looked at the certification of the products, their scientifically proven health benefits and their food value. We crosschecked their values with existing medical literature. No independent testing was done because we don’t have any testing facilities available with us,” Dr S.N. Misra, Secretary General, IMA, told me over the phone.
The lack of availability of a lab cannot be an excuse, say consumer rights activists. “If they didn’t have an in-house lab, they should have approached other private labs,” says Priti Shah, Senior Director, Consumer Education & Research Centre in Gandhinagar. “The right way would have been to test all parameters and all products available in that category and then make their findings public. Organisations like the IMA should stay away from such endorsements. They belittle their independence.” Looking at the label and crosschecking it with established medical literature is something even a consumer can do. “This is not the kind of information we want from a medical body. We need more of independent, scientific information,” she said.
What if a market competitor of PepsiCo that has a product like Tropicana or Quaker Oats asks for a certification from the IMA? Would they play cheerleaders for them also? “If another competing brand approaches us, we would not endorse it because we have signed a contract for a certain period of time with PepsiCo,” says Dr Misra categorically. So the ‘goodness’ of the product is not the issue here. It basically boils down to who approached the IMA first — if nothing more. However, he says that members of the IMA will not be asked to endorse any of the IMA-endorsed products as the organisation is “not PepsiCo’s selling agent”. He added that the IMA would not endorse every company and its products that approach them. “The Himalaya Drug Company approached us for Liv-52 but that’s a herbal product and we are allopathic doctors. We turned down the offer,” he explains.
Ethics, it seems, has been the first casualty of a deal like this. When a medical body endorses a product, how many of us will be able to differentiate between an ‘approval’ and a ‘prescription’? Move over Aamir, Shah Rukh and Sachin, the men in white coats are here to hardsell goodies to us.