How film stars fool us into buying junk food, cigarettes and more

India has no enforcement over surrogate advertisements.

 |  Quantum Leap  |  4-minute read |   02-06-2015
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Notices sent to Bollywood stars – Madhuri Dixit, Priety Zinta and Amitabh Bachchan – for claiming Maggi noodles to be “healthy” while it has been found to contain ingredients harmful to human health have opened up a can of worms about celebrity endorsements.

The number of Indian celebrities endorsing alcohol, tobacco and junk food brands runs into several dozen and covers everybody from Bollywood A-listers to "have beens" and minor television starlets.

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 Shah Rukh Khan in an advertisement for Seagram's Royal Stag music CDs.

Endorsements of products considered unhealthy or which can cause potential damage to one’s health are so widespread and deep that it would not be wrong to blame our film stars and cricketers for a significant part of the growing burden of lifestyle ailments.

Though alcohol and tobacco advertising – direct and indirect – is banned in the country, our film stars have no qualms about promoting alcohol and tobacco brands under the fig leaf of “surrogate advertising”. So when King Khan SRK says “Have I made it large”, you know he is talking about Royal Stag whisky and not music CDs.

In commercials celebrating 25 years of Vimal Pan Masala, Bollywood’s "cool guy" Ajay Devgn says "iske dane dane me kesar hai", but even a child can make out that he is not promoting saffron from Kashmir but pan masala which carries a statutory health warning (“Chewing of Pan Masala is injurious to health”). Other youth icons - Priyanka Chopra (Rajnigandha), Saif Ali Khan (Pan Bahar) – too are asking the youth to buy products which are patently unhealthy.

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Priyanka Chopra in an ad for Rajnigandha cardamom.

Priyanka may justify her endorsement saying she is advertising Rajnigandha cardamom (elaichi) and not pan masala. However, it is well known that tobacco industry has traditionally used pan masala brands as surrogate to promote gutkha, which now stands banned in most Indian states. Also remember that Rajnigandha comes from the same company that makes India’s two leading zarda brands – Tulsi and Baba. Flavoured elaichi thus becomes a surrogate for both pan masala and zarda sold under Rajnigandha's name – this is what marketers call brand extension.

Not just tobacco brands, Priyanka has not even hesitated to be associated with alcohol brands. She, along with others from the film industry, has been a recipient of the Teacher’s Achievement Award - instituted by Beam Global Spirit and Wine Inc, makers of India’s top selling scotch whisky, Teacher’s .

Such blatant association with tobacco and alcohol brands is worrisome because the UN projects Priyanka as an ambassador for child rights and adolescent health. The objective of celebrity endorsement is brand recall and brand association. The commercial advertising is so powerful that young girls would associate Priyanka with Rajnigandha rather than seeing her as the goodwill ambassador for UNICEF. Awards to promote liquor brand Officer’s Choice and tobacco brand, Red and White, have had several public figures endorsing them in the past. In order to dodge regulatory action, the Red and White award was named the Godfrey Phillips National Bravery Awards.

Urmila Matondkar can be seen in commercials selling a tea brand called “502 Pataka” in a rural/semi urban setting. This is a surrogate ad for India’s largest selling bidi brand with the same name. The website of the Pataka Group says “with a production capacity of 110 million sticks of bidi per day, Pataka is the largest bidi manufacturing company in India”. Just note the production figure – 100 million sticks a day! Pataka’s bidi business dates to 1952 whereas it started manufacturing tea only in 2000, around the time India legislated the anti-tobacco law.

India has strong policies on advertising, promotion and sponsorship by alcohol and tobacco companies but no enforcement over surrogate advertisements. There are other loopholes too. Though advertising of liquor and tobacco products is banned in India, alcohol companies can promote their brands legally at points of sale.

As regards promotion of junk food - products high in salt, sugar and fat – India has no regulatory framework on advertising or celebrity endorsement. There is no legal tool whatsoever to prevent junk food marketing targeted at children. That’s why every processed food products like noodles, potato chops, sugary aerated drinks and candies are endorsed by celebrities. In order to prevent any regulation, every junk food brand now comes with a "healthy" tag and some even promise to cure serious ailments like diabetes. Miniscule amounts of "healthy" ingredients are added to mask the unhealthy ones. The imagery of grains and vegetables is cleverly used in commercials to give an impression that processed food is healthy and even better than freshly cooked or homemade food.

If processed food is “convenience food” – for singles and those who live away from homes – as often claimed by industry, this is not reflected in marketing messages. On the other hand, pre-cooked foods are positioned as superior to “ma ke haath ka khana” in commercials. Big food companies have entered our kitchens and declared a war on traditional culinary skills. Celebrities have become willing allies of the junk food industry in this phony war, while government agencies remain mute spectators.

Writer

Dinesh C Sharma Dinesh C Sharma @dineshcsharma

Journalist, columnist and author based in New Delhi.

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