Sans loyalty on either side, where do celebrity endorsements stand?

Two very newsworthy happenings over the last week, linked to celebrity endorsements, have opened up a very interesting debate on loyalty – a brand’s loyalty to the celebrity, and concurrently the celebrity’s loyalty to the endorsed brand. Byju’s put their campaign on hold post the controversy surrounding his son’s arrest in the Cordelia cruise drug seizure case. And then on his 79 th birthday earlier in the week, announced that he was dis-associating himself from Kamla Pasand pan masala brand as he had finally figured out that it was surrogate advertising. He also returned the remuneration he had received for the endorsement.

has been Byju’s brand ambassador for almost 5 years now – almost ever since the brand started to advertise on mass media. His name and face have been synonymous with the edu-tech platform. Byju’s, one of the largest education start-ups in the country, has temporarily taken down all its advertisements featuring the superstar amid the growing backlash on social media. The actor, as also the platform, were heavily trolled over the past few days due to the drug investigation against SRK’s son. Pulling out the ads must not have been easy since bookings on television are made well in advance and cancellations can entail heavy costs, especially on the IPL. Byju’s has an estimated 42 million registered users and 3 million paid subscribers. Students spend a reported 71 minutes on the app daily. Shah Rukh can legitimately claim some credit for Byju’s enormous success. But one whiff of controversy and Byju’s put Shah Rukh in the cooler. No one of course knows if SRK’s exit is a temporary hiatus or a terminal boot-out.

The story has even more twists and turns. Bachchan was trolled on social media for endorsing Kamla Pasand ads last month. His ‘top-fan’, one Vijay Kalla, had questioned him on the need for him to endorse a pan masala. Mr. Bachchan had replied him, “If someone is doing well in their business, we should not wonder why we are joining them. If there is a business, we also have to think of our business. You feel I should not have done this, I was also paid for it but there are many people working in our profession.” Bachchan fans were left aghast. Then Shekhar Salkar, President, National Organisation for Eradication of Tobacco wrote a scathing letter to Big B. He said that medical research has proved that addiction to tobacco and pan masala decays the health of the citizens, especially the youth, and said that since he (Bachchan) is the government brand ambassador for the high profile pulse polio campaign, he should drop out from the pan masala ads as soon as possible. Mr. Bachchan finally woke up to all the negative sentiment. On his 79 th birthday, on Monday, Bachchan grandly announced his withdrawal from the advertising campaign of Kamla Pasand saying he did not know the product he was endorsing (silver coated elaichi) was a surrogate for pan masala!

So we now have two interesting situations: one where the brand almost dropped the celebrity; and the another where the brand was dropped unceremoniously by the celebrity. Hence the question of loyalty. And love. And relationship. Should the brand Byju’s not have been so weak-kneed and should they not have stood by SRK during his troubled times? Or was it fair for them to pull out of the fire before the brand got burnt further? In Bachchan’s case, the Big B obviously ran for cover post SRK’s trolling in the Aryan drug arrests, which had started to extend to his endorsement of Vimal pan masala (again under a euphemism). Mr. Bachchan just dumped Kamla Pasand and returned his endorsement fees post haste. Should he have really done so?

The question of loyalty is actually easy to answer. Prima facie, the celebrity is nothing more than a gun for hire. They hardly ever use the product they peddle, in their real lives. The entire arrangement is purely commercial. Most celebrities have mostimes never heard of, or used, the brand they vociferously endorse in the ads. It is just about money, money and more money. So, since there is no real relationship between the celebrity and the brand, it is only fair that both keep their respective options open, and on the first signs of trouble, bail out. Each to his own; each on his own.

Yet, in SRK’s case, over five years, some relationship must’ve been surely forged between the company and the celebrity. It does look a bit shallow therefore for Byju’s to have jettisoned the superstar so quickly. Trolling is not always reflective of the public sentiment. A thousand well-orchestrated trolls, working in co-ordination, can create a Twitter ‘trend’ in a few minutes. So trolling, howsoever vicious, cannot become a trigger for submission to supposed public sentiment. Methinks Byju’s were unfair to SRK. They should have shown more grit. And atleast some visible resistance in defence of their beleaguered brand ambassador.

In the case of Mr. Bachchan, his conduct is really unpardonable. For a seasoned personality like him, with an army of advisers, lawyers and managers at his beck and call, not knowing that the elaichi he was endorsing was actually a pan masala surrogate is totally unbelievable. In fact Big B defended the endorsement for well over a month with some very strange utterances in his own defence before bolting away from the brand. To me it looks like rank opportunism: pocket the money if you can; then play moral messiah when matters hotten up. Especially from the great Bachchan such behaviour is certainly not expected.

There have been occasions in the past too when brands could have dropped problematic brand ambassadors. But they didn’t. It was the year 2006. Toyota was just launching a new campaign with Aamir Khan for the Innova. On the day of the press conference, the media broke a story about Aamir Khan’s love child, Jaan, with Jessica Hines. There could not have been worse timing for the Japanese client. But they stood by Aamir and went ahead with the launch despite the raging controversy surrounding their brand ambassador. The Innova went on to become a super-duper hit. And the Jaan story petered out a few days later.

Virat Kohli dropped Pepsi after many years of endorsing the brand claiming he had become fitness conscious and did not want to endorse a cola as he found the fizzy drink unhealthy. Pepsi took the hit on the chin. Not only did Kohli exit the endorsement after enriching himself for many years through fat celebrity fees earned from the cola giant, but in his exit he actually bad mouthed the entire category. So much for a goodwill ambassadorship!

Moral of the story? You watch your backside, I will watch mine. Old fashioned virtues like love or loyalty don’t really exist. In the celebrity world everything is for hire: moral values included.

(Dr. Sandeep Goyal is the Chief Mentor of the Indian Institute of Human Brands.)

Views expressed are personal. They do not reflect the view/s of Business Standard.

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