In the line of fire: Stars who endorsed Maggi noodles are now staring at punitive action
Pullela Gopichand, former badminton champion, is as celebrated for his prowess as a sportsman as he is for having rejected a lucrative offer to endorse a carbonated soft drink after he won the All England Badminton Championship in 2001. He was concerned about the health hazards they posed. ” I don’t drink any colas so how could I endorse them? Celebrities can endorse something if they are confident of the product, but I don’t think they should do it just for money’s sake,” he says, when cat.a.lyst calls him to discuss the role of celebrities in the Maggi noodles controversy.
There are many facets to the Maggi noodles mess. The steaming hot controversy erupted after the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in Uttar Pradesh found high levels of contamination in a 2014 batch. It raised several issues, which boil down to ethics. One of these ethical conundrums relates to celebrity endorsements. Actors Preity Zinta, Madhuri Dixit and Amitabh Bachchan, who have endorsed the brand, are reported to have been served notices by the government for misleading consumers by starring in advertisements for a product that is now allegedly toxic because of impermissible amounts of MSG and lead.
How fair is it to blame the celebrities for their role? There have been quite a few controversies, both in India and abroad, where celebrities have been blamed and sued for supporting certain brands which failed to deliver on their promises. There is the infamous case of Home Trade, a financial services portal which roped in none less than cricketer Sachin Tendulkar and actors Shah Rukh Khan and Hrithik Roshan to build trust, only to shatter it ultimately. They have also been drafted to restore confidence among consumers when brands failed them, like in the case of Cadbury, which used the Big B in a reassurance campaign.
Walking the talk
Says Ramanujam Sridhar, Founder and CEO of the Bangalore-based brand-comm, a brand consultancy: “The celebrity is not seen as someone who uses the product he is supporting. He’s only seen as an entertainer who comes and goes. But there are several cases cited as successes of celebrity-aided advertising – Santro, which Shah Rukh Khan endorsed, for instance. Who would believe that MS Dhoni really wears a Sonata or that Tendulkar rides a TVS Victor, that too in Mumbai?” He says that in the West, there are fairly stringent stipulations that celebrities cannot advertise a product unless they use it, but that is not the case in India. “That being the case, how can you suddenly hold them responsible?” he says.
Section 24 of the Food Safety and Standards Act 2006 prescribes the general rules that no person can participate in unfair trade practices to promote the sale and consumption of foods or claim they are of a particular standard or efficacy that is not based on scientific justification. In any case where a defence is raised to the effect that such a guarantee was based on adequate or scientific justification, the onus of proof lies on the person who raises defence.
Section 53 says that any person who is a party to the publication of an advertisement which makes false claims and misleads consumers about the food’s nature or quality will be liable to a penalty which may extend to Rs. 10 lakh.
Anisha Motwani, Director and Chief Marketing Officer, Max Life Insurance, thinks it is unfair to drag celebrities into this debate. ”They are experts in their field of work, not in the product/service they endorse. They are picked for their appeal, influence and popularity. Even the people who handle their contracts aren’t experts in products and services being picked. Had that been the case, we would have had scientists and researchers as celebrity managers.”
The need for accountability
Gopichand says that while he thinks it’s unfair to blame celebrities for Maggi’s alleged negatives, celebrities also need to be conscientious when they endorse products that affect people’s health. “There needs to be a balance. People have faith in celebrities’ judgment and from that perspective, I would think there is a certain amount of responsibility that they need to take. How much that is rests with them.”
To what extent does a celebrity’s duty stretch? Says Sridhar: “Even if the celebrity demands to see proof that a brand is safe and is shown it, how would he really know? They wouldn’t sign on the dotted line unless the deal comes through a big, reputed agency.” He also charges celebrities’ managers with relentlessly hawking the celebrity like a consumer product that’s going to go out of fashion. “I hope this issue will make the celebrities more selective and prudent,” he says.
Says Max Life’s Motwani, “You can’t expect a celebrity endorsing a real estate brand to know and approve of the quality of cement used to build houses. Neither can you expect one endorsing a writing instruments brand to know where the ink is sourced from. I think as long as celebrities employ reasonable judgment to decide their picks, it is fine.
For instance, the choice to endorse or not an accessories brand which uses leather for its bags, or a paper brand where environmental impact is obvious, or a taxi operator which has a history of despicable cabbies … these are critical decision-making criteria.
When a popular face falters here, consumers and media have every right to badger him/her in case a negative incident surfaces. But other than that, no.” She says consumers today aren’t naive. “They understand that the celebrity is adding a popular face to a brand, and not responsible for what goes into its making.”
What the aam aadmi says
And what does the person on the street say? Chennai-based AKR Rao believes it’s the consumer’s lookout, solely. “Even if the celebrity gets a quality certificate from the company assuring them that the product is safe, it’s not gospel, nor is its validity permanent.
Quality could suffer later. How can celebrities keep tabs on that?” He says no celebrity will deliberately endorse a harmful product, no matter how greedy. Even if it they do, the principle of caveat emptor(buyer beware) should kick in, he adds.
Yercaud-based Poornima Swaminathan says, “I think they endorse mainly according to the money they get and few really bother about what it does to the millions who follow them. But with Maggi, I feel it’ s really not their fault. Who would associate lead and noodles? However, in products that claim fairness, water-purifying and such, they should really find out.
Maybe Maggi is the beginning. Should they have checked? I don’t know. Maybe in hindsight, yes. We all know that sometimes even we are tempted to buy something seeing the advertisement. How much more then, the guy whose life begins and ends with Madhuri Dixit?”
Swaminathan also thinks the food safety system should be held responsible as it is also their fault those noodles made it past quality control. “Our food safety regulations are not in place. I know companies apply different standards to different countries. People will have to start pushing the standards that we have.”
Others that cat.a.lyst spoke to pointed to how there’s a “willing suspension of disbelief” when celebrities endorse products. And, as AKR Rao says, “Are you going to go check a star’s bathroom and see if they really use that soap? And do you really believe that you hair will grow knee-length if you use that oil?”
It’s as if we, the average Indian, do not take our celebrities seriously. We gush over them, the matches they play in, the movies they act in, take sides, endorse their merits, but when it comes to crediting them with credibility, we are less trusting. One would even go so far as to say our attitude is one of indulgent cynicism. Put aside those fevered debates about whether they should be prosecuted and the answer is invariably: “Look, we know they are in it for the money. We’re not fools to believe everything they say.”
But the reality is that many people, especially children and those with little exposure to information, are impressionable, and celebrities influential. What is the right course then, is the question, the answer to which must come from the hearts and minds of all stakeholders involved. And yes, never forget: caveat emptor.