Indian cricket icon M.S. Dhoni may be used to getting flak for not living up to promises on the field. But this week saw the Indian captain being taken to task by his fans on Twitter over a different kind of promise — not his own, but of a realty brand he endorses. Dhoni is not the first celebrity to be pulled up for a failed brand promise.
Earlier, during the controversial ban on Maggi, actress Madhuri Dixit too faced severe flak and even legal action for endorsing the product as not just safe, but also healthy. Celebrities are as integral to the brands they endorse as they are to their respective fields. However, to what extent can they be held accountable for the brands they endorse?
The issue is not only murky, but is also a very subjective one, says professor Subhash Tendle, who heads the Crafting Creative Communication department at MICA. “There are layers to it. When a celebrity is endorsing 15 different brands, it really doesn’t matter which brand he or she is endorsing.
But if there are only a few, then it might work well for the brand. For example, Hema Malini has been endorsing a purifier and now people identify her with the brand. But when Amitabh Bachchan endorses several brands, although few of those names even reach remote corners, it doesn’t effect the brand much because they are seeing not the brand but the persona of the superstar.”
While it is true that celebrities do wield considerable influence over the popularity of the brand they endorse, they are only a mouthpiece that conveys what the brand wants to convey, argues Abhijeet Awasthi, founder of Sideways Communications.
“I believe if a celebrity is associated with a brand and an issue arises, the onus to clear the air and make amends is on the brand and not the celebrity. Practically speaking, it is not reasonable to do so — the celebrity is only a professional hired to tell the brand story. Going by that logic even the agency which helped push the product, the film director, cameraman and every link in the chain should be held accountable,” he says.
Some are of the opinion that the celebrity in question should do a thorough background check before they decide to endorse a brand. “There is no legal obligation to do that yet, it is up to the celebrities to do a background check,” says Subhash.
National creative director Raj Deepak Das points out that there are celebrities who like to do their homework, to save themselves from potential troubles.
“Most celebrities I work with actually make the effort to know what the company is doing, the brand’s character, how big they are and everything. Because they obviously don’t want to get into anything wrong.”
However, doing that is not always as easy as it sounds, says Sujoy Roy, senior creative director, Ogilvy & Mather. He argues that while brands do have to deliver on their promise, the practice of blaming celebrities has been fuelled by social media.
“The problem with social media especially in India is that people forget to respect the personal space of celebrities. It would be foolish to pass the blame to a celebrity and expect him to come and solve their problems. In this case, we must understand that MSD was not talking as brand MSD, but as an individual. When brands select a particular celebrity to endorse their product they evaluate the icon and have a certain set of values and characteristics associated with them. But that doesn’t mean the celebrity would know everything about the brand. Would Madhuri endorse Maggi if she knew it had lead? No! Celebrities are victimised because they are easy targets.”
Echoing Sujoy’s point, Raj Deepak adds, “A lot depends on what the brand is now and what it will be in the near future. Everything is changing very fast, so it’s bad to look at a celebrity and say that it’s their fault for endorsing it. They endorse the brand at a time when the company is good; they’re only caught in the middle.”