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The moral responsibility of celebrity endorsers

LiveMint logoLiveMint 15-06-2017 Livemint

In an interview published in Mint earlier this month, Indian cricket team captain Virat Kohli said that his fitness philosophy is increasingly shaping his thinking on brand endorsements. He revealed that his team is “on the cusp of making some big changes on that front”. Since then, it has been widely speculated that Kohli was talking of his association with Pepsi, one of the biggest global brands in carbonated soft drinks. If Kohli decides against renewing his Pepsi contract, he will join Pullela Gopi Chand, the former badminton great, who had long ago decided not to endorse carbonated soft drinks owing to their deleterious health effects.

There have been other products—fairness creams, for example—which have drawn such a response from a few celebrities. Some actors have refused to endorse fairness products and at least one TV network has decided not to carry their advertisements. Individual decisions—by a person or a company—are indeed welcome but that does not mean that this “morality” should be imposed on others. Some people have asked for a complete ban on advertisements of fairness creams, if not the creams themselves; the demand has been raised in Parliament as well. The problems of a nanny state aside, the only meaningful consequence of a ban would be such products being sold under other names and categories.

There is a subtle difference between raising one’s voice against discrimination based on skin colour and trying to extinguish an individual’s urge to look fairer. It can be legitimately argued that the urge to look fairer is, in many cases, driven by widespread discrimination in favour of fair-skinned people, especially in job interviews and marriage markets. But that still does not give anyone, including the state, a reason to curb the freedom of others to desire to look the way they want. There is also the slippery slope problem. If fairness creams are adjudged unacceptable today, various cosmetic surgery procedures could follow tomorrow.

The state should also learn from its experience of banning advertisements of liquor brands. Surrogate advertisements to circumvent the ban are common. There have been voices in support of a ban even on surrogate advertising, but this will merely result in liquor brands being forced to use pricing as the only weapon left against their rivals. And competitive prices could mean more consumption, overturning the entire logic of the ban on advertisements.

Another argument that is regularly trotted out is that celebrities should only endorse the products they have personally consumed and found to be useful. This is doable to a limited extent: For instance, the guidelines of the US Federal Trade Commission on endorsements and testimonials in advertising provide that if “the advertisement represents that the endorser uses the endorsed product, the endorser must have been a bona-fide user of it at the time the endorsement was given” (emphasis added). But how is this standard to be enforced in a consistent and reliable manner?

There are also cases where celebrities are blamed for not performing due diligence on brands they end up endorsing. This expectation of due diligence is often open-ended and therefore unreasonable. In June 2015, a court in Muzaffarpur, Bihar, ordered the police to register FIRs against three Bollywood stars—Amitabh Bachchan, Madhuri Dixit-Nene and Preity Zinta—on the complaint of a petitioner who had fallen ill after eating Maggi, a Nestlé noodle brand the three actors endorsed. This came amid a nationwide furore after food quality regulators in some states alleged that samples of Maggi noodles had lead and monosodium glutamate content beyond permissible limits. Any amount of reasonable due diligence by the actors and their teams would not have found this out. Later, Nestlé got a clean chit from the Bombay high court.

In another case, the Indian cricketer M.S. Dhoni was blamed because Amrapali Group, a Noida-based builder the wicketkeeper-batsman had endorsed, had allegedly not met the promises it had made to home-buyers. Taking cognisance of such matters, a parliamentary standing committee had last year recommended a fine of up to Rs50 lakh and a jail term of up to five years in order to hold celebrities accountable for the brands they endorse. If implemented, this will amount to punishing celebrities for the failures of the state.

Section 53 of The Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006, provides for a penalty of up to Rs10 lakh for any person who is party to the publication of a misleading advertisement. If the celebrity endorser is assumed to be a party under this law then, as the advocates Arvind Data and Payal Chawla correctly argue, other crew members, such as the director, cameraman and scriptwriters, should also be held liable. However, only celebrities are usually targeted.

As far as the state is concerned, it should hold brand owners accountable for their products through its regulatory and judicial institutions and not fall into the easy trap of finding soft targets. Moral boundaries, in the case of products like carbonated beverages and fairness creams, should also be drawn by the individual celebrity and no one else.

Should celebrities be punished if the brands they endorse turn out to be bad? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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