Celebrity endorsers in the crosshairs

According to data released by AdEx India, a division of TAM Media Research report, celebrity endorsements saw a 44% rise in 2021 over 2020

Advertising as a tool of communication has changed dramatically.
Advertising as a tool of communication has changed dramatically.

By Alokananda Chakraborty

The government has decided to go hammer and tongs at corporations, brands and celebrities that make fake and exaggerated claims to woo consumers. Guidelines notified on Friday — which prohibit surrogate advertising and make it mandatory for celebrity endorsers to disclose even small stakes in the companies or brands advertised — have brought the issue of endorsers’ responsibility back in the spotlight.The question of holding brand ambassadors responsible for their claims has been in the public eye since the 2015 Maggi fiasco. At the time, Bollywood stars Amitabh Bachchan, Madhuri Dixit and Preity Zinta were slapped with legal notices not to promote the brand on “false representations” about quality and safety.

To see why the issue continues to rankle, one has to only look at the number of times brands/ companies have been caught peddling average products with claims like “Number 1”, “clinically proven”, or “guaranteed results in 30 days”.“When a Bollywood celebrity says Brand X is the only one that offered true diamonds, or a top cricketer says Brand Y will make you taller and stronger there are two problems. One, where is the evidence? And two — and this works at a subliminal level for brands targeted at children — there is this feeling that my child is no good if she is not taller or stronger or fairer,” said an advertising executive who has been responsible for many big-ticket brand endorsement deals.

Yes, it can cost brands crores if they cross the line, but their reliance on celebrity endorsers is showing no signs of letting up. According to data released by AdEx India, a division of TAM Media Research report, celebrity endorsements saw a 44% rise in 2021 over 2020. And 27% of the overall ad volume on television in 2021 was celebrity endorsements; the balance comprised non-celebrity-led ads. As one agency head put it, “words spoken by celebrities continue to sway ordinary buyers in India”; so it’s time “they took responsibility for deliberate miscommunication or a genuine mistake”.

One could well ask why haul up the most famous person when a dozen people are responsible for creating an ad. Also, is external intervention needed in a largely “creative business”?

“For the longest time, the advertising industry followed the path of self-regulation (as endorsed by the Advertising Standards Council of India or ASCI) and it has done a good job to stay within the limits of law, honesty and decency. But with social media things are getting complicated,” said Samit Sinha, founder Alchemist Brand Consulting.“On the other side, there is also the idea of creative licence, and advertisers use tools like humour and exaggeration to get their point across. The fear is that unbridled power to an external agency to scrutinise ads and ambassadors might impact the whole creative process negatively. The ad fraternity must come together to ensure that doesn’t happen,” Sinha said.

Sandeep Goyal, managing director of Rediffusion, had a slightly different take. “The Advertising Standards Council of India is a toothless body. Their guidelines were never mandatory, no one therefore followed them. ASCI did nothing about them. Government guidelines are serious stuff, they cannot be played around with. If not controls, at least guardrails have become necessary for malpractices to be controlled. ASCI will remain a bystander by and large. It is the government that will need to act.”

Advertising as a tool of communication has changed dramatically. From mass media like print, television, out of home, cinema and radio, today marketing communication comes in many forms, including influencer videos, social media posts and product reviews. “All these can be gamed,” says Ambi Parameswaran, brand coach, and founder Brand-Building.com. “What I think the government should do is to strengthen ASCI’s hands. All advertisers have to be members of ASCI and its rulings should be seen as ‘quasi-legal’. In this way, the legal apparatus does not get clogged with too many complaints and can focus on the bigger issues of gross violation of rules.”

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