Maggi row: Should we also hold Madhuri Dixit and Amitabh Bachchan guilty?
Isn't it time Bollywood and sporting superstars put conscience on the table and demand background checks before they sign on endorsements?
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With Swiss giant Nestle's premium India product Maggi (two-minute) noodles now in a hot soup, a noxious and unpalatable stew is cooking the hard-earned, long-standing reputations of celebrities such as Madhuri Dixit Nene, Amitabh Bachchan and Preity Zinta. Currently, these actors have FDA (Food Safety and Drug Administration) notices and cases hanging over their heads for endorsing Maggi, which has been found to contain staggering amounts of toxins, particularly lead and MSG (monosodium glutamate).
The latest revelations come about after an FDA inspection threw up some unsavoury and extremely hazardous details, "contaminating" and landing a near fatal blow to one of the most trusted and universally consumed food items in this country, Maggi. This noodle brand, a bit like Amul butter, had become the taste of India, so much so that Maggi advertisements, when not showcasing ageing stalwarts of Bollywood, were more or less lessons in India's "communal harmony", forever pushing the motto of "unity in diversity". Maggi has been, for the longest, the lingua franca of this gastronomically much divided nation, building bridges where the palate is a weapon of mass destruction, where openly consuming certain food items can easily get you in harm's way.
Maggi was the zero-offence food, until the FDA investigation brought out its seamy underside. So, we may ask, why harass Madhuri, Amitabh and Preity, for endorsing Maggi, in which the whole of Indian middle class had put its faith? If trusted brands like Nestle's Maggi defaults, is it the problem of the celebrity brand endorser?If trusted brands like Nestle's Maggi defaults, is it the problem of celebrity brand endorsers like Madhuri Dixit?
Except that it is. And, it is here that the never-talked-about idea of "responsible endorsement" comes into picture.
Sample this: only about a month back, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan found herself at the receiving end of an advertisement campaign gone hideously wrong. Kalyan Jewellers, in what was intended to be a massive ad campaign, showed Aishwarya in bedecked Raj regalia, complete with a dark, malnourished "slave boy" holding up an umbrella for the aristocratic fair lady. Clearly, this was supposed to be a "transporting" experience for the viewer, who was supposed to be instantaneously time-travelling and reliving the Raj nostalgia. Instead, it landed the company and Aishwarya in a mess, with allegations of racism and utter insensitivity forcing them to withdraw the ad eventually.
On the other hand, in a country so deeply scarred along colour lines and where beauty is considered only skin-deep, not just female stars, even a bevy of male actors promote fairness products. This pantheon of celebrities include A-listers such as Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan, Saif Ali Khan, Hrithik Roshan as well as others like John Abraham, Arjun Rampal, Shahid Kapoor, Varun Dhawan, et al. Similarly, from super-heroines like Deepika Padukone, Katrina Kaif, Priyanka Chopra, to starlets like Yami Gautam, Asin, among others, many women celebrities have been endorsing one cosmetic after another which shamelessly harp on fairness as an instant panacea for professional and personal success.
In fact, bagging these endorsements are in themselves much publicised events, that are given ridiculous media coverage and form a significant chunk of the bloated bubble that is our entertainment industry. There's a prestige war going on in the background where these very celebrities, especially those lower in the rung, fight tooth and nail to bag these lucrative endorsements, without paying any heed whatsoever to the wider implications. The ugly fairness race starts from our dressing tables and ends only in the boardrooms of these cosmetic companies where the stars enter and exit riding the tide of their box office value.Shah Rukh Khan openly admits to saying no to nothing as long as it is filling up his already hefty coffers.
The celebrity endorser, therefore, is as much a product with a market price, as is the item or brand that s/he throws her/his name behind. Yet, where's the reciprocal relationship between the two where the celebrity uses his/her iconic stature or box office credibility to redraw the contours of business and/of advertising? While research shows one in four advertisements falls back on the tired trope of celebrity promotion, then why do our stars and "icons" supinely follow the herd and not speak up when they find something offensive in content?
Some of them, thankfully, do.
Actors like Kangana Ranaut, Ranbir Kapoor, Randeep Hooda are among a handful of performers who have consistently refused to endorse fairness creams. Others like Nandita Das have spearheaded resistance campaigns like "Dark is Beautiful" to spread the message. But what does one do of a Shah Rukh Khan who openly admits to saying no to nothing as long as it is filling up his already hefty coffer? Or an Amitabh Bachchan, whose Gujarat tourism ads have been accused of painting a false, monolithic history of not just the western state, formerly steered by Narendra Modi, but also of the entire subcontinent?Nandita Das has spearheaded resistance campaigns like "Dark is Beautiful".
Not just individual celebrities, the much hyped events such as IPL (in India) or Cannes Film Festival (in France) have sponsors with murky records. So, while an Amitabh Bachchan refuses to promote Pepsi after being jolted into his senses by a little girl at a function, cricketers and other Bollywood actors will give their left foot to be featured in a Pepsi ad. Similarly, the mainstay of alternative and politically progressive world cinema, Cannes, has not yet emerged from the shadows of L'Oreal. The French cosmetic giant was not only founded by a Nazi sympathiser (Eugene Schueller), but was also involved in providing support packages to Israeli Defence Forces during the notorious Operation Protective Edge of July-August 2014, when the Gaza Strip was reduced to rubble by IDF, and Israeli women soldiers were shown abusing and torturing Palestinians with L'Oreal and Garnier packages in the background.
Returning to the central question of this article, isn't it time we start mainstreaming "responsible endorsement" and bring it out of its fringe, hippie penumbra? We have mega arsenals on social media and even mainstream media doesn't waste time latching on to suitably fashionable social conscience movements. Why not hashtag #BeingCredible or #ResponsibleEndorsement and see them set trends and impact patterns of advertising and consumption?
Why not boycott films and matches of actors and cricketers who endorse a questionable product? Why not force the reckless and heedless of the lot to demand background checks on the products upon which they put their face and brand power behind?
Is this asking for too much?