Shailesh Kapoor: Celebrity Endorsement Pangs and the Kangana Solution

05 Jun,2015

By Shailesh Kapoor


It’s been the week of the Maggi fiasco, the discussions around which have been laced with more humour than anger or fear. While the real issue, of whether Maggi noodles are safe to consume or not, is still being investigated, someone’s fertile imagination propped up an entirely fringe element in this controversy – that of celebrity endorsers being held liable if the brand they endorse breaches standards of safety or ethics.


The topic is of immense interest to me, given that a part of our work involves understanding popularity and imagery of celebrities, and its impact on the brands they endorse. If I had to summarise five years of collective learning on the topic: The top 15-20 celebrities in the country bring genuine value to brands they endorse (subject to threshold creative executions), and a long-tail of dozens of other celebrities get endorsements, because these brands cannot afford the Top 20, but add no real value to their brands at all.


On an average, a topline celebrity endorses about 4-5 brands at any point of time. That would mean that about 100 topline endorsements are being advertised at any time. Add to that co-branded associations with film, in-film placements, IPL and other sporting leagues-led endorsements, fringe celebrities, etc. and the count would cross 300.


Much as I have tried to objectively understand how celebrities could be held accountable for the conduct of brands they endorse, I have made little headway. If Madhuri Dixit signs a contract with Nestle to endorse Maggi on defined commercial terms, and the contract explicitly states that the brand will be responsible if Maggi is found to be lying to its consumers (or some such articulation), it should be Madhuri Dixit who should be contemplating a lawsuit against Nestle for tarnishing her image.


What did we expect her to do? Take Maggi noodle packets to Government labs herself and get them tested? If a product is on the shelf, it is deemed to have passed all the statutory tests of safety. And if it is indeed found to be unsafe later, the testing authorities (Food Safety &Standards Authority of India in this case) and the brand itself must be accountable in an investigation that may reveal huge lacuna in some of the testing processes, not to speak of the potential corruption that could exist.


Celebrities have been soft targets for years now. While we should be critical of celebrities making insensitive comments in their attempts to show solidarity towards co-celebrities who were found to be on the wrong side of the law, we should be equally critical of (mostly) fringe groups that exploit celebrities as soft targets, sometimes for fame, sometimes out of jealousy, sometimes out of plain stupidity.


The celebrity endorsement market has its own set of challenges. Things are far from perfect there. For me, the big story from this market over the last month was when Kangana Ranaut revealed that she has refused fairness cream endorsements and went on to explain her stand: “People tell me that I don’t know English but they should know what is acceptable and what is not. You are pale, you are dark, you are brown or you are black; there is nothing called fair. So stop using this humiliating word.”


Much of the media industry advocates self-censorship, and celebrities too should be applying the same to their choice of brands, than going about signing up endorsements recklessly in what tends to become a rat race between them. We need many others like Ranaut to portray a more responsible and wholesome image of the celebrity fraternity. Much as that expectation is a “fair” one, lynching celebrities for just going about their work in a professional way is not cool either.


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