Social media pressure on cricketer MS Dhoni to step down as the brand ambassador for real estate firm Amrapali Group is one thing, holding him accountable for the alleged defaults by the group is quite another. Similarly, if the food safety regulator FSSAI wasn’t able to discover till only recently – and it turns out, this finding was incorrect, and possibly even fudged by local authorities in a few states – that popular instant noodle Maggi had banned ingredients in it, how were Amitabh Bachchan or Madhuri Dixit or Preity Zinta to know this when they signed on as brand ambassadors? Even if there was a law that prevented celebrities endorsing ‘bad’ products, where was the information that indicated or made it clear Maggi products were harmful?
Which is why, the parliamentary standing committee’s report that wants to penalize brand ambassadors for misleading advertisements is so bizarre and shows just how little the worthies on the committee have applied their mind. The committee has recommended a fine of Rs 10 lakh or imprisonment of up to two years, or both, for what they call a first-time offence, and a fine of Rs 50 lakh and imprisonment of up to five years for the second. For subsequent offences, the penalties will be pegged to the value of sales volumes of such products or service. Instead of insisting on stringent penalties on regulators who fail to detect problems in time or to take action against companies who sell inferior products or default on obligations to customers, the parliamentarians have taken the easy – and populist – way out by holding the brand ambassadors liable. While there is no doubt unscrupulous firms do pay large sums to celebrities to endorse their products – Home Trade got Sachin Tendulkar, Hrithik Roshan and Shah Rukh Khan to endorse it even though it had no great product to offer and later cheated investors of several hundred crore – the solution only lies in the authorities apprehending these crooks. If a celebrity endorses a product with a known problem, such as tobacco or alcohol or a convicted real-estate builder, some kind of action can still be considered, and this too has to be of the social media type that got Dhoni to ditch Amrapali. A much better solution, though, is to simply impose codes such as the ones we have in India that don’t allow such products to be advertised – it is true that alcohol firms manage to get away with surrogate advertising but this is better tackled by taking action against the firms rather than on the celebrities that endorse them; indeed, once action is taken against an alcohol company for advertising club soda, the celebrities will automatically back off.