On 30 August 2016, the Finance Minister Jaitley would preside over a meeting of Group of ministers to consider and approve the drastic suggestions to amend the consumer protection law with a view to putting the fear of god into celebrities who blithely endorse brands for a mess of pottage without trying to ascertain the truth behind the claims made by the ad. The following two provisions of the proposed amendment bill are draconian harking back to the aborted POTA designed for tackling the menace of terrorism:
Reverse jurisprudence. The normal rule of law is one is innocent unless proven guilty by the prosecution. Sometimes this rule is bypassed in the interest of security of the nation and for similar other solemn considerations. Terrorism was one of them which is why the reviled POTA swore by reverse jurisprudence; and
Penalty upto Rs 50 lakh which is fine though inadequate and jail term upto 5 years which is unwarranted.
Many advanced jurisdictions that have long ago made laws to tackle the menace of exaggerated celebrity blitzkrieg, have carefully drawn a distinction between civil and criminal liability. When income tax default is by and large treated as a civil liability in this country, why should we hit celebrities with a sledgehammer of a jail term? Is it because the lynch mob that is out there would love it? By all means make the monetary penalty severe. To wit, instead of restricting the monetary penalty to Rs 50 lakh it should be say 10 times the fees paid to the celebrity. That would put the fear of God into the celebrities collecting brand ambassadorships blithely.
In addition to treating the irresponsible act as a mere civil offence, the temptation to haul a celebrity over coals should be avoided by providing for built in safeguards like:
Punishing the celebrity for laxity only when the advertisement featuring him/her pouts through his/her lips or body language exaggerated or dangerous claims. This would make the celebrities more responsible and take the minimum precaution of consulting experts in the field. In other words, a distinction must be drawn between ads that use the services of celebrities more directly and those featuring them passively perhaps as an object of deification; and
Punishing the celebrities only when the brands endorsed can cause actual or potential harm to the person of the consumers especially the impressionable minds. To wit, a celebrity promoting a car saying that it has the best pick up and stop should not be visited with a monetary penalty because his/her target audience is mature persons and not toddlers/children or adolescents.
While even adults swoon over celebrities, it is minor whose interest the law must protect as they have the requisite pester power over their parents and are likely to harm themselves more. Soft drinks and junk food are cases in point. The reason why we must be careful even in casting civil liability on the celebrities is we should not throw the baby with the bath water.
This nation already has a celebrity deficit reflected in celebrities being confined largely to the tinsel world. A law made in haste could be a dampener for the fresh kids on the block like PV Sindhu and Dipa Karmarkar who did India proud in the recent Olympics. These kids require all the sponsorships that come along their ways to progress and prosper.
Now the moot question. Who on earth is a celebrity? The question may appear rhetorical but must be answered carefully with a tight definition in the law. We in India take cricketers and film stars as celebrities axiomatically. But celebrity must be defined as the one who enjoys public esteem and popularity thanks to his/her achievements in fields other than the one represented by the brand being endorsed. Who knows some day our ad gurus may feature the irrepressible Lalu Yadav for his ability to provide rustic humour. Already quite a few stand up comedians have attained celebrity status.