When Katrina Kaif endorsed Veet hair removal cream for women, I went and purchased it against all other competitors of the product, because Kaif was endorsing it. Similarly, when Anushka Sharma endorsed Nivea deodorant for ‘fair’ underarms (from fair skin to underarms too!), I bought that too against other products promising the same, because it was Sharma endorsing it.
That’s how celebrity brand endorsements work. They do influence people on buying certain products. Buying or endorsing the products or brands isn’t necessarily bad. But what when the product in question is something ‘bad’ itself?
The latest issue: One such category of endorsements that the Indian public finds very problematic is the celebrity surrogate advertising of gutkha brands. At the latest, the heat reached Akshay Kumar. He became the target for an ad for Vimal Elaichi which also stars two other A-Listers - Shah Rukh Khan and Ajay Devgn.
What is the controversy? Now, Vimal Elaichi itself is only a spices product, but that’s not what the Vimal Elaichi ads are really selling. Vimal is popularly known for its gutkha products, which cannot be advertised directly according to law; and definitely, no celebrities can endorse them either. So, tobacco and alcohol brands resort to what is called ‘surrogate advertising’. Using surrogate advertising, regulated products such as cigarettes, alcohol and tobacco can be advertised disguised as another product.
How did Akshay Kumar react? Akshay Kumar apologised for endorsing the brand and stepped back from being the brand ambassador.
And of course, he went the Amitabh Bachchan route on ‘oh, I didn’t know what I was selling’ trope. However, this 2018 video of Kumar saying he rejected ads from gutkha brands due to moral issues, insinuates he knew how they advertised. Besides, isn’t Big B a lesson enough in surrogate advertising for celebrities?
@ajaydevgn @iamsrk @akshaykumar icons of bollywood - are ur kids having this product at home ? Will u promote them to use this ? Kesar ka dum , zubaa kesari , vimal elachi ? To survive u dont need to do such ads. U guys have gr8 fan base n gr8 brand value. Plz stop this ?? pic.twitter.com/b4QOccN33K— Chiraag D (@cdesaai) April 20, 2022
Besides, don’t we all remember Akshay Kumar’s anti-smoking PSA ad which talks about buying sanitary napkins for women’s health for the price of two cigarettes?
James Bond actor Pierce Brosnan, Amitabh Bachchan, Priyanka Chopra, Anushka Sharma, SRK, Akshay Kumar, Ajay Devgn… there are way too many big names to list, who’ve endorsed gutkha brands or alcohol brands at one time or another.
But it isn’t just surrogate advertising that celebrities in India have faced the heat for. Here are 5 types of shady celebrity endorsements:
1. THE RACIST ADS
Fair and Lovely: Yami Gautam is our household Fair and Lovely lady. I remember the 5-year-old me being obsessed with the product and fairness before I learned about racism and that it’s okay to be not fair. The backlash for this product came years late, and it did manage to change the name of the product to ‘Glow and Lovely’.
Fair And Handsome: Then there was the ‘Fair And Handsome’ product endorsed by Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan. The product, despite its racist undertones, continues to be on the shelf without any change.
Kalyan Jewellers: Aishwarya Rai Bachchan dolled up in the best jewellery from the Indian brand on a poster was a sight to behold, except for one very problematic thing. The advert showed a dark-skinned slave boy holding an umbrella over the fair-skinned Aishwarya. It was not only racist, but with India’s history, it was also casteist.
Kalyan Jewellers ad with Aishwarya Rai Bachchan.
2. THE SEXIST ADS
There is no dearth of these everyday, casually sexist advertisements. Among those that received a lot of backlashes were:
Jack and Jones: The Danish fashion brand's big billboard advertisements showing Ranveer Singh with a girl slung over his shoulder and with the tagline, ‘Don’t hold back. Take your work home’, was promptly criticised for showing women as objects.
Jack and Jones’ sexist ad controversy leaves Ranveer Singh upset pic.twitter.com/CbjzWi2tlh— cinewanted (@cinewanted) November 26, 2016
Detergent ads: ALMOST ALWAYS they show a woman washing the clothes, because of course, that’s what women love doing (eye-roll). Salman Khan and Prachi Desai’s ad for Wheel washing powder also towed the same line.
Prestige: A woman’s place always belongs either in the backyard washing clothes, or in the kitchen cooking. Abhishek Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s advertisement for Prestige utensils came with a sexist tagline, “Jo biwi se kare pyaar, woh Prestige se kaise kare inkaar!” Like the woman only cares about cooking?
3. UNHEALTHY FOOD
Pepsi: Once Amitabh Bachchan stopped endorsing Pepsi cold drinks after a schoolgirl asked why he was promoting something that her parents and teachers called ‘poison’.
Full marks to Christiano Ronaldo for doing what most celebs won't (when he removed the coca cola bottles in front of him during a press conference).
Maggi: Amitabh Bachchan, Madhuri Dixit and Preity Zinta all faced backlash from the Indian public during the 2015 Maggi-MSG (Monosodium Glutamate) crisis for promoting the allegedly unhealthy product.
4. MISLEADING ADS
Sandhi Sudha Plus: Govinda and Jackie Shroff faced legal issues over their endorsement of an Ayurvedic oil – Sandhi Sudha Plus, which claimed to cure knee pain and other aches. The FDA also charged the brand for its misleading ads.
Yes, celebrities have also outright endorsed shady businesses and financial frauds.
Real estate fraud: Genelia D’Souza was slapped with a legal notice for endorsing a real estate company that committed land fraud in Hyderabad, duping hundreds of buyers.
Online Ponzi scheme: Shah Rukh Khan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui were named in a 2017 online Ponzi scheme case involving a scam of Rs 500 crore. The actors had endorsed a Ghaziabad-based company Webwork Trade Links’s portal Addsbook.com, which took money from unsuspecting people, promising to multiply their investments.
Bitcoin scam: Several celebrities from Raj Kundra to Neha Dhupia and Bipasha Basu in 2017 tweeted about Amit Bharadwaj’s book on cryptocurrency. Bharadwaj is now the prime accused in the GainBitcoin scam worth nearly Rs 2,000 crore. Kundra was also questioned by the ED in the case.
Bollywood celebrities actively endorsed a Multi billion scam on twitter who duped thousands of gullible investors pic.twitter.com/2c2WwBPwUB— Rishi Bagree (@rishibagree) April 17, 2018
Also, read about Kim Kardashian being named in a cryptocurrency scam. If your favourite celebrity uncharacteristically starts talking about cryptocurrency, you should be cautious.
Moral of the story: Do not buy products based on celebrity endorsements. Most of the celebs won't use what they are asking you to use.