Is Celebrity Endorsement a Double-Edged Sword?

(Published in The Huffington Post:  )

We all know the value of Brand Equity and the significant role it plays in the Marketing strategy of every business. Increasing market share and customer acquisition as well as retention through the use of celebrities like Shahrukh Khan or Priyanka Chopra and so on has been a consistent practice of brands for years now. And why not? These celebrities are strong brands in themselves and induce an instant hysteria with their presence both on and off screen.

So, it is only natural that both big and small brands like Pepsi, Lux, Sprite, Cadbury, Bajaj and increasingly even services as well as sports leagues like the IPL for cricket, Tata Sky, even news channels like NDTV Prime are invoking their need for celebrity endorsements as it is certainly the cash cow waiting to be ‘milked’ and assures increased sales because of the changed shopping behavior of the consumer as a result of seeing their favorite celebrity purchasing that particular product.

Having said that, there can be no denying, however, that advertisers today across the board exaggerate the benefits of their products in all their sales and marketing campaigns and advertisements to entice the consumer to make a purchase. The face cream that seems to whiten the skin of Priyanka Chopra – the dusky beauty within days or the shampoo that suddenly makes Katrina Kaif’s hair impeccably airbrushed and shine like the sun overnight – it’s the great advertising conundrum – but to say that the picture perfect results that the use of these products promise the viewers are in fact delivered to the T would be a far-fetched statement. Value is delivered, yes but in most cases not to the extent shown so graphically in the advertisement. (I have tried every shampoo I could get my hands on. Improvements? Yes. Miracles? No.)

Having worked in the Advertising and Marketing space for a few years, however, I also do understand the need for this exaggeration from the seller’s point of view. It gets people to the stores and makes them buy their products in the hope that those miracles will happen for them too. And there are certainly plenty of happy customers. There is an inherent grab value attached to a film star or a sports star endorsing a brand versus the same product being advertised without a celebrity endorsement. This is what the brand banks on to bring in the big bucks. And the fat cash cow sits there licking its lips. But let’s talk for a minute about the consumer. At some point we must also stop and ask ourselves – Isn’t Shahrukh Khan, my favorite celebrity – my idol – tricking me into spending my money on something that is not changing my life like he promises it will on screen? Given that advertising is a game of who reels in more with the best kind of fishing rod (ad campaign), isn’t there a line that defines how much is too much dishonest selling?

In recent years there have also been numerous cases of television and print ad campaigns that have enraged consumers with their racist, insensitive and negative messages warranting immediate public apologies and canning of the ads. Benetton tops the list with their well-known portfolio of controversial ad campaigns that have sparked anguish and debate worldwide such as montages of Barack Obama kissing his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao in 2011 and the pope locking lips with Eqypt’s Ahmed El-Tayeb in Cairo as part of an anti-hate campaign. Benetton had to give explanations for all of these ad series that inevitably garnered the expected response.

Today there is also much talk about CSR being the sustaining tour de force for brands and business for the future. And I agree – social and environmental responsibility is an integral part of any business today and needs to ultimately be embedded in vision and strategy of every company. But a company that claims to practice ‘Marketing for Good’ and simultaneously steps on a lot of toes with such unethical, negatively effecting advertising campaigns, more so with the use of celebrities will raise a lot of questions in the minds of consumers and perhaps even stain their credibility.

In a study last year in the USA (2014), nine hundred people were questioned on what it is they look for when they make a purchase in all products and services from electronics to insurance. Forty six percent of the target group said they would trust expert advice and rely on products whose advertising offers them that. If I want to buy medicine for a migraine, I would definitely rely more on a certified or well- known doctor on TV telling me to go buy a particular brand, than Ranbir Kapoor, for example.

Then there is Maggi – one of our country’s favorite noodles snack, particularly popular among children- that has just recently come under the scanner due to the alarmingly high lead and MSG contents found in the Maggi noodles in some parts of the country. While Maggi awaits its fate which reports say could well be a ban, this also sheds light on the social responsibility of celebrities to endorse products that are healthy for consumption, both by kids and adults.

As the media website Media Bistro puts it, ‘fame does not make one an expert on anything other than being famous.’ Brands that recognize this and amend their strategies to become more socially and morally engaging with the use of ‘Expert Endorsements’ instead of celebrities may just be able to fatten the ‘cow’ while also enjoying high customer retention.

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