Three cheers to Abhay Deol, the thinking actor, whose celebrity status has drawn enormous attention to our obsession with fairness. The trigger for his Facebook post, which has gone viral, was the crass comment of former Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) parliamentarian Tarun Vijay, on a television programme. Mr Vijay has apologised for his utterly distasteful and divisive comment (“If we were racist, why would we have all the entire south… Tamil, Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra… why do we live with them? We have black people around us”) but the anger, especially among south Indians, refuses to cool down. The actor, refreshingly enough, called out several Bollywood superstars by posting photos of their fairness cream advertisements with his caustic comments. An excellent example of a celebrity breaking ranks with his fraternity for a bigger cause!
In February 2014, the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), the self-regulatory body of the advertising industry, which monitors advertisements, issued a code to cover fairness creams. When I joined ASCI’s consumer complaints committee in 2012 (I quit in 2016), I remember feeling good about the fact that we routinely upheld complaints against advertisements for fairness creams, because they invariably fell foul of the ASCI code. It soon became evident that manufacturers and advertising agencies, who created their campaign, had no intention of reforming. Their advertisements were designed for a short life span of a few weeks. Every new ad campaign was carpet-bombed at viewers and pulled off when ASCI upheld complaints against it. The next one made similar unsubstantiated claims, complacent with the knowledge that ASCI has no policy of escalating action against ‘habitual offenders’. Around then, another well-known actress, Nandita Das, lent her voice to the ‘Dark is Beautiful’ campaign that had exploded into a blaze of negative publicity for fairness sellers.
ASCI then got its act together and framed a set of guidelines to eliminate the more egregiously offensive advertisements that linked confidence, happiness and success to the elimination of skin pigment. Advertisements that blatantly reinforced negative stereotypes (like showing persons with darker skin colour as unsuccessful and lacking in confidence until the fairness cream worked miracles) had to be dropped. The newer set of advertisements posted by Abhay Deol are still insensitive, with film stars holding up shade cards to show the efficacy of creams and lotions in ‘brightening’ skin colour. Hopefully, Tarun Vijay’s revolting views, and Abhay Deol’s attempt to shame the stars who perpetuated colour-prejudice by endorsing fairness products, will have a bigger impact on advertisers than ASCI’s code and unwillingness to tackle habitual offenders. Remember, stars like Amitabh Bachchan and Aamir Khan have stop endorsing colas mainly because pressure of public opinion would have hurt their image.
Unfortunately, regulatory action in India is episodic, as are the attempts to hold celebrities accountable for the products they endorse. The last time that policy-makers wanted to haul celebrity endorsers over the coals was when the Maggi noodles controversy erupted. Various courts and the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) officials issued notices to hapless film stars, who were probably flummoxed at how everybody’s favourite any-time snack had suddenly become India’s Number One food poison.
A parliamentary panel recommended that celebrities (and not manufacturers or advertising agencies) must be held accountable for appearing in misleading advertisements and should even be asked to pay a fine (going up to Rs50 lakh), or a jail term of two years, or both. The government quickly accepted the recommendations. Nobody seems worried that making a celebrity primarily responsible for a product and its advertising would only unleash a string of complaints by publicity seekers.
The Maggi controversy died a quiet death when FDA offices around the country began to report contrary findings about the MSG (monosodium glutamate) in the noodles. By then, Patanjali launched its wheat noodles, and a few brands wormed into the space vacated by Maggi. An amendment to the Consumer Protection Act, to cover celebrity endorsements, was introduced in the Lok Sabha; but there seems to be no urgency anymore to have it passed. After all, consumers were clearly unimpressed by the government’s zeal to protect them from their favourite noodles.
The test of holding a celebrity accountable for a product is whether she is aware of the misleading nature of the advertisement or has made an effort to find out. ASCI, which recently issued guidelines on celebrity endorsement (probably to avert drastic action by the government), has touched on this issue, albeit in a sketchy manner. ASCI says that a celebrity must do due diligence before endorsing a product. Seeking advice, or guidance, from ASCI, on whether a product violates its code will be considered adequate diligence. It is not clear if ASCI will charge for this advice, as it charges for ‘fast-tracking’ complaints by companies against one another (as opposed to those from the public). Otherwise, the celebrities must ensure that they do not endorse products that fall foul of the Drug and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) Act, Drug & Cosmetics Act, or push products that require a statutory warning (tobacco), etc.
ASCI guidelines have left the financial sector, which uses celebrity advertisements in a big way, completely untouched. Yet, its press release believes that advertisers following its guidelines “will protect the interests of the consumers, especially for products or services which can cause serious financial loss or physical harm.” The entire debate on celebrity endorsements ignores misleading financial advertisements and the fact that India’s film and sports stars promote shady, Ponzi-like multi-level marketing companies, which hawk holiday packages, magic remedies (in the name of Ayurveda, crystals, magnets, etc) and other products. While MS Dhoni was forced to resign as brand ambassador for a realty developer called Amrapali, Australian cricketer Brett Lee happily endorsed the shady business of India’s biggest Ponzi scam PACL Limited (also known as Pearls) and nobody protested.
Insurance companies are among the worst, in this respect. They make promises far beyond what an insurer delivers and their soppy advertisements create a fertile ground for bank officials to sell toxic insurance products (high premium products with low returns), to unsuspecting people, leading to heavy financial losses. Moneylife Foundation has been campaigning for almost seven years to stop, or restrict, celebrity endorsement of financial products. But neither the insurance regulator nor the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has bothered to respond. In 2014, the ministry of corporate affairs (MCA) began airing a radio advertisement urging consumers not to believe in celebrity endorsements. The advertisement, which is a conversation between friends, explains how a company that is spending a lot of investors’ money on celebrity endorsements cannot give higher returns and one should be careful before investing in such company. This vindicates Moneylife’s stand. But should the ministry be educating the financial regulators first, instead of the masses?
On the contrary, the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) has now succumbed to pressure from the powerful mutual fund industry. The outgoing chairman, UK Sinha, in one of his last actions, allowed celebrity endorsements at the industry level. So funds earmarked for investor education will probably go into paying fat fees to Bollywood and sports stars.
All of this only goes to show that government concern about misleading advertisements is episodic and non-serious. Every controversy leads to a new ad hoc policy. There is no attempt to ensure that the rules are evenly applicable even within a specific sector and absolutely no thought is given to implementation or enforcement. India has no shortage of statutes that cover misleading advertisements. In addition to those mentioned above, the issue is also covered by the Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act, and The Young Persons (Harmful Products) Act. What consumers fail to realise is that the system is dysfunctional by design—those who need celebrities to market their products have very deep pockets and complete control over policy-makers.