Last night, Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan (SRK) smiled at me from a billboard while I was driving uphill on a flyover in Delhi. Far from being amused, I was shocked. He was beckoning people to buy Reliance Jio telecom services.
To a starry-eyed person, this would have been another instance of celebrity advertising that is such a rage in India and not a cause enough to elicit outrage. But, SRK has already had a dalliance with a rival brand, Airtel.
A celebrity endorsing multiple brands is common in many countries, more so in India where there is a woeful celebrity deficit. But a celebrity endorsing hot and cold though not in the same breath invites revulsion.
For all one knows, SRK might have stopped endorsing Airtel long ago may be because his contract for this purpose with the company was over or he chose not to endorse the brand any longer.
And therefore he is now endorsing Reliance Jio may not be in breach of contract, especially if the contract SRK had with Airtel did not prohibit him from endorsing rival brands once the contract was over.
But then the issue transcends contract law and contractual relationships. There is a bit of ethics involved here.
Celebrity advertising is in a way hero worship transported to areas other than the celebrity’s forte often. S/he bamboozles his customers both actual and wannabe with his/her charm.
In the event, celebrities are weighed down by a lot more moral issues than lesser mortals like ordinary models and satisfied consumers singing paeans of a brand.
When SRK endorses Jio, he is effectively running down Airtel implicitly, even though admittedly Reliance Jio was not running a comparative advertising campaign.
|When SRK endorses Jio, he is effectively running down Airtel implicitly.|
And this negative publicity for Airtel is going to be more pronounced and galling because unlike other rival brands like Idea, Airtel was once endorsed by SRK.
Its sudden disavowal, albeit implicit, is going to sow seeds of suspicion about Airtel in the minds of customers likely to be swept off their feet by the star’s much vaunted charm.
The Government of India prohibits civil servants from taking up private sector jobs for a period of two years post-retirement or resignation. This is called "cooling off" period.
The rationale underpinning this prohibition is that the cooling-off period would prevent the bureaucrat from passing on government secrets and policies to a private party for a consideration camouflaged as salary or consulting fees.
The reward in the form of job may be post facto i.e. after the valuable information was passed on while in service or take the hue of simultaneous exchange.
Whatever it is, people in the know wonder if a two-year cooling off period is sufficient. Shouldn’t there be a life-long bar like the one obtained for judges from practicing in the same court where they once presided over the proceedings majestically?
A contract with a celebrity for endorsement must prohibit him from endorsing a rival brand now as well as in the future. And this hopefully will not be construed as being restrictive of one’s freedom to practice one’s vocation because endorsement is not a celebrity’s vocation but an avocation, as it were. In other words, it is incidental to his celebrity status.
Airtel may be ruing its laxity if that is what is allowing SRK to thumb his nose at it.
Advertising watchdog Advertising Standards Council of India must take up this issue in all seriousness. SRK is more to blame than Reliance Jio because it was for him to squelch the moral dilemma.
For Reliance, it was another form of routine poaching de rigueur these days in any competitive business. To the discerning critic, however, poaching is common when esoteric knowledge is in possession of a few individuals, whereas Reliance had an array of celebrities to choose from.
But who is chosen is strictly Reliance’s business. It is for the celebrity to put all his cards on the table.