The price of greatness is responsibility- Winston Churchill

Celebrities act as influencers to a common consumer. With a large population of India, living in villages, a celebrity endorsing a product or service, serves as promise of quality and builds instant recognition and credibility. In many cases, the benefits of product or claims made in adverts may be misleading or not supported by any data. To check this indiscriminate endorsement by celebrities without carrying out due diligence, ASCI (Advertising Standards Council of India) in April 2017 released Guidelines for Celebrities in Advertising. These guidelines are directed to both Advertiser and Celebrity to ensure that:

  • Subject advertisement (mentioned as “advert”) should not violate any of the ASCI code i.e. product/service should be honestly represented, should not be offensive to public, should not promote harmful products or substances and observe fair competition.
  • Testimonials, endorsements or opinions in advert must reflect genuine and reasonably current opinion of the individual(s) making such representations and should reflect adequate information about or experience with the product/service.
  • Due diligence is done to ensure that all description, claims and comparisons made in the advert can be substantiated and are not deceptive/misleading. Celebrity can seek advertising advice[1] from ASCI to ascertain violations in advert, if any which can be construed as due diligence.
  • No product/ treatment/ remedy which are prohibited under the Drugs & Magic Remedies and the Drugs & Cosmetics Act should be endorsed by celebrity.
  • No tobacco based products or products bearing health warning should be endorsed by celebrity.

Since these guidelines have been framed, the onus is on the celebrities to recluse themselves from endorsing a product or service which propagates absurd products such as fairness creams, slimming capsules, etc. and/or products where the claims remain unsubstantiated and desired results may not be attained.

Over past two years, several advertisements endorsed by celebrities have come under scanner. A few of them where complaints were filed with ASCI and the complaints were upheld against the brand and its advert are summarized below.

  • A number of complaints were filed against the television commercial of motorbike ‘Hero Xtreme 200r’ by Hero MotoCorp Ltd. which was endorsed by sports (cricket) celebrity, Virat Kohli. The complaints were received from governmental bodies, Supreme Court committee, consumer organization and end users with prime concern of road safety wherein Virat Kohli was shown to ride the bike dangerously flouting traffic rules. The CCC (Consumer Complaints Council) upheld the complaints. The advertiser agreed to revise the television commercial; however proposed revisions did not address all the objections raised by the complainants. Since the complaint was received from the Supreme Court Committee on Road Safety, this complaint was not treated under Informal Resolution (IR) mechanism, and was processed extensively. The CCC concluded that the television commercial portrayed violation of the traffic rules, showed dangerous practices and manifested a disregard for safety. Such television commercial encouraged unsafe/ reckless driving which would harm the driver and general public. While it contravened ASCI Code, clauses (a) (b) and (c) of the ASCI Guidelines for Advertisements depicting Automotive Vehicles and was found to be violating Clause (b) of the ASCI Guidelines for Celebrities in Advertising.
  • The CCC upheld a complaint filed against ‘surrogate advertisement’ by liquor brand, Officers Choice Blue which was being endorsed by sports (cricket) celebrity, MS Dhoni. The advertisements were concluded to be misleading by implication and contravened ASCI Code and also did not meet the requirements of the ASCI Guidelines for Qualification of Brand Extension Product or Service.
  • Complaint was filed against Frankfinn Aviation Services Pvt. Ltd.’s television commercial claiming to be “World’s No. 1 Airhostess Training Institute” featuring Alia Bhatt. The CCC concluded that the claim, “World’s No. 1 Airhostess Training Institute”, was not substantiated with verifiable comparative data of the advertiser’s institute and other similar institutes worldwide to prove its leadership position or through a third party validation. The claim was misleading by exaggeration and was likely to lead to grave or widespread disappointment in the minds of consumers. The television commercial was found to contravene Guidelines for Advertising of Educational Institutions and Programs, ASCI Code and clauses (c), (d) of the Guidelines for Celebrities in Advertising. The complaint was upheld.
  • Complaint was filed against the ‘Lenskart Blu Smartphone Lenses’ by lenskart.com wherein claim was made that “Only lenskart blue lens obstruct the harmful blue light of the digital screen” with celebrity, Katrina Kaif urging viewers to visit the Lenskart Store for a Lenskart Blue demo. The advertiser in their response, stated that advertisement attempts to inform the consumer about the efficiency and efficacy of the Lenskart Blue Lens in obstructing the harmful blue light of the digital screen, in comparison to regular lenses and lenses using antiglare technology. However no evidence was submitted. The CCC observed that the advertiser did not provide any reliable evidence that the Digital screens emit blue light and its exposure being harmful to users. The advertiser did not submit any comparative data to prove the effectiveness of the Lenskart Blue Lens in obstructing the harmful blue light of the digital screen, compared to regular lenses and antiglare lenses. The CCC concluded that advertisement gave no reliable evidence, testimonials to product efficacy claims and is likely to mislead consumers. It was found to contravene ASCI Code and clauses (c), (d) of the Guidelines for Celebrities in Advertising. The complaint was upheld.

Celebrity endorsements came into sharp focus during the controversy surrounding quality of Maggie Noodles (in 2015) with allegation that lead and MSG content in Maggi noodles was in excess of the permitted limit. During the time, the product was being pulled off shelf, the celebrity endorsers of Maggi– Madhuri Dixit, Amitabh Bachchan and Preity Zinty (all popular film actors) came under intense scrutiny as to their moral liability as brand ambassadors of the product. As a result of this controversy a proposal to amend Consumer Protection Act was also mooted which is still under consideration. While it is arguable that moral responsibility of a celebrity remains when he chooses to endorse a product however making them liable for quality of a product which has been approved by relevant authority such as Food Safety and Standard Authority of India is a bit harsh.

Guidelines for Celebrities in Advertising can be accessed at https://ascionline.org/images/pdf/guidelines-for-celebrities-in-advertising.pdf.