Companies go for star brand
endorsements in the hopes of quick returns – increased sales, jump in
stock-price, brand recall, and brand equity. A study found “sales for brands in
a variety of consumer-product categories jumped an average of 4 percent in the
six months following the start of an endorsement deal, even after controlling
for advertising expenditures and other factors that could be expected to drive
Brands sign up celebrities so as to
build positive associations between the star and the brand. Which is why makers
of children’s goods like toys, foods, and baby care products will rope in
actresses with a maternal appeal (which rules out single Bollywood starlets, as
they would not be caught dead endorsing baby products). It helps gain
acceptance, brand recall, and companies hope that the association with the
celebrity will transfer attributes from the celebrity to the brand. This is
important for a brand to build differentiation in the market as that enables a
brand to charge a premium over other, similar, commodity goods. Premium pricing
is the name of the game.
Celebrity brand endorsements, however,
are also a sign of sloth. In the normal course, it takes time, money, and hard
work to build a brand. It takes neither time nor hard work nor skill to take a
celebrity and plaster him/her in front of your company’s product. The results
are, like noodles, almost instantaneous. But stars, when they fall, also take
down the brands they endorse; examples of Tiger Woods, Bill Cosby, and Maria
Sharapova serve as warnings. Why is that?
Companies want consumers to buy their
products because of the celebrity endorsing their product. Companies indirectly
say – “See this celebrity actor? He is a handsome, successful, charming, witty,
personable fellow (or so he appears in his movies) that you would want to bring
home to your family to meet. He is appearing in an advertisement for our
product, endorsing our product. So of course, our product is also as good as
this celebrity. Therefore, buy our product and you will become as handsome,
successful, charming, witty, and personable as …” This is the essence of brand
associations. Sometimes companies also want to impart a certain elitism to
their products; having a celebrity implies you are not a cheapskate and are
willing to put down serious money for a celebrity endorsement.
So what went wrong in the case of Aamir
Khan? Let’s start with the help of a hypothetical (repeat hypothetical)
discussion between a child and her father.
Father: Yes chinna.
Child: Appa, I saw that actor on TV
saying his wife is scared, she fears for her child, she wants to leave India.
Child: Yes, and at school my teacher
said it’s because Hindus have been threatening people, and that the PM has been
threatening minorities and that’s why Aamir Khan’s wife wants to leave India. I
didn’t threaten anyone. Are we Hindus bad?
Father: Hmm, of course not, chinna.
That’s not true at all.
Child: So why is the actor saying all
Father: Well, sometimes people say
things that are not true
Child: Why? Didn’t his parents and
teachers and friends tell him not to speak lies?
Father: I am sure his parents and
teachers and friends all told him not to speak lies.
Child: Then why is he telling a lie?
Father: It is complicated china.
Child: Like math? But I don’t find math
Father: Sometimes people want to appear
good, so they say things that are not true.
Child: How can a person be good if he
says things that are not true?
Father: Sometimes people say things so
they will get money.
Child: But how can people do that? Is
money everything for them? Doesn’t he have enough money?
Father: And sometimes people say things
that are not true but they still go ahead and say those things because they don’t
like other people.
Child: What are you saying? What do you
Father: Let’s take an example. Let’s
assume there are two people - one is called “A” and the other is called “B”. If
“A” does not like “B”, or if “A” doesn’t like anyone who is like person “B”,
then “A” will say things about “B” that are not true.
Child: All the time?
Father: No, not all the time, but
certainly some of the time.
Child: So how can I believe this person
“A” then? How do I know he is not lying at all time?
Father: This is why we must not accept
anything that someone says without first checking for ourselves.
Child: But appa, the newspapers said it
Father: This is why our newspapers have
a duty, a sacred duty, to not just report but also investigate.
Child: Did the newspapers examine this
Father: Yes, they should have, and they
should have said that what the actor said was not true, but they didn’t.
Child: Why not?
Father: Because sometimes newspapers
also don’t want to do what’s right.
Father: It is complicated chinna.
Perhaps some other time.
Child: But this actor also comes on
television talking good things about a company. Is he telling the truth there?
Father: Why do you ask?
Child: If this actor can lie in one
place, how do I know he is not lying elsewhere? Maybe he tells lies all the
time. Maybe he is lying when he comes in the ad and asks people to buy from
Father: Good question.
Child: So why do you have that company’s
app on your phone? If the company pays money to someone who lies, how do I know
that they will they sell something good to us and not lie simply to get our
Father: Hmm... good question. What do
you think I should do?
Child: Don’t buy anything from that
Therein lies the rub with celebrity
brand endorsements. As perishes the celebrity, so it perils the brand,
especially when the brand association is very strong. If the advertising is
effective, and the brand association built through advertising is strong, then
I, as a consumer, will buy a company’s products because I believe the celebrity
when he/she tells me to do so.
Now, if the celebrity says, “India is ‘intolerant’,
its people ‘intolerant’,” and so on, it creates cognitive dissonance in my mind
that I must resolve. If I believe the celebrity is honest, then I must also
believe that he truly believes his second statement, i.e., that India is “intolerant”
and that there is “despondency” around. If on the other hand, if I believe the
celebrity is being manipulative for commercial (or worse) reasons, then I must
discount his first statement too; i.e., that the celebrity is insincere when
advertising for the brand and insincere when making public statements. This the
risk a company runs when signing up celebrities as its brand ambassadors – the risk
of the celebrity turning rogue!
One argument put forth is that a call
for a boycott is nothing short of bullying and intimidation; one journalist
went as far as to call it “sickening”. That, frankly, is a ridiculous argument
to make. At the end of the day, a boycott is among the more civilised
expressions of dissent. To make sure we stay within the context, we are talking
of people choosing not to buy from a particular company or a product. We are
not talking of a social boycott here. The target of companies is the consumer’s
wallet. The consumer, when choosing to boycott the company, is conversing in
the same language. Any form of protest, to be effective, has to materially
affect the target of the protest.
Another argument against a boycott is
that the celebrity’s personal views should not be conflated with the product,
or products, the celebrity is endorsing. That is valid if the personal opinion
is expressed within the confines of a private space. When expressed in a public
forum, as Aamir Khan did, it ceases to be a personal opinion, and becomes
Almost nothing a celebrity does in
public remains personal or private. Remember Mel Gibson, the Hollywood actor
who was arrested for drunken driving in 2006. During his arrest, Gibson
exploded into a tirade against Jews. This led to an almost decade-long boycott
of Gibson by Hollywood. Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic views should have been his
personal opinion and it should have been no one’s business that he held such
views. But once made public, it would mean a complete abdication of personal
responsibilities as citizens if one did not protest against racism, religious
phobia, and socially undesirable behaviour by those held up in society as role
models. What was true in Gibson’s case was equally valid in Aamir Khan’s case.
SnapDeal quietly discontinued Aamir Khan as brand ambassador in February
2016, choosing not to renew its contract with the actor. This was, however, the
last “victory” that the pro-boycott group would achieve. We shall see why in
the concluding part.
Disclaimer: views expressed are
(To be concluded)
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