Last year China toughened its advertisement laws including the one on celebrity advertising designed to punish them (celebrities) for misleading advertisements. Perhaps taking a cue from China, an Indian Parliamentary committee has chosen to follow suit.
It has recommended amendment to Consumer Protection Act to provide for a fine of Rs 50 lac plus a term in prison. When celebrities rake in money by truckloads, they must gird themselves for hefty fines as well should the brand not live up to its reputation as made out by the celebrity. That is the flipside of the celebrity status. Hitherto it has been a smooth ride for them. Now they have to take the rough with the smooth.
Advertising gurus are crying foul. They say it is the manufacturer who should be punished for selling shoddy goods and to punish the celebrity is like shooting the messenger. Well, he would be in the new scheme of things punished independently of the celebrity. Celebrity’s fault is not he allows manufacturing defects to creep in. His fault is he puts the full force of his personality into the brand, and the gullible buyers fall hook, line and sinker.
There are conscientious celebrities who try the product for a length of time before signing the contract. And others like Amitabh Bachan have pangs of conscience though in his case it was rather late in the day when a schoolgirl in Rajasthan touched a raw nerve---carbonated drinks are poison is what the girl is supposed to have said and brought about change of heart in him.
Celebrities (read cricketers and film stars in the Indian context) are no ordinary models or mortals. They are put on a pedestal, and when they fall from grace, their reputation and market value also falls with a thud. They get a fortune vis-à-vis professional models when they are riding a high. The Parliament must however provide for mitigating circumstances in their favor as follows:
1) Like a credit rating agency, they must remain on their toes, and downgrade the brand they have been endorsing by courageously going public should they get credible reports of poor quality or harmful effects of the product. That ought to be a mitigating circumstance before the consumer court. That would also enhance his stock even while bringing down the brand’s.
2) It should also be a mitigating circumstance if they seek expert opinion before singing paeans about the brand. But then in that case the expert could be hauled over coals for laxity because if the expert misleads the celebrity who in turn misleads the public, it is the expert who should bear the cross. The expert of course will bill the celebrity for his services which the celebrity would merrily pass onto the company. Levity apart, roping in an expert is like company promoters roping in experts so that they are not hauled over coals for misleading prospectus; and
3) A celebrity who lends his name indiscriminately to any brand at all, left and right, is reviled by the society. But the one who is a perfect fit with the brand ought to be treated more kindly by the consumer protection law. Sushil Kumar the silver medalist in the last Olympic wrestling competition endorses Patanjali’s ghee (clarified butter). No one is better qualified to sing paeans of a milk product than the doughty Haryanvi wrestler.
The proposed change in the law will have positive fallout on the quality of advertisements. Puffery inevitable in ads will be toned down when celebrities withdraw fearing punishment and the void will filled by experts. It may also be credibility-enhancing if a celebrity and an expert together endorse a brand as Virat Kohli is doing with a tooth brush brand in the role of a dentist’s patient.
The ultimate in advertising of course is comparative advertising which calls for enormous courage by the challenger who must be sure of his grounds before he runs down a rival lest he is hauled up for disparagement, the marketing world’s equivalent of defamation.