In his book Ogilvy on Advertising, ad guru David Ogilvy says, “Testimonials from celebrities get high recall scores, but I have stopped using them because readers remember the celebrity and forget the product.”
Celebrities are used in roughly one-fifth of all ads in the US. Therefore, you might assume that celebrities are effective at selling products. Wrong. When you peel back the onion and look at the data, you will find that in many cases, celebrities don’t sell the product effectively. In the cases where they are effective, it is not because they are celebrities. It is because they are considered to be “expert” users of the product. For example, a good-looking actor will be effective in selling products related to looking good, and superstar athletes will be effective in selling products closely associated with their sport, such as Nike Air Jordan basketball shoes.
It seems putting film stars on a pedestal has got something to do with our fawning culture of hero worship. Alas, if we had only given Neeraj Chopra a sliver of the overall share of celeb ads given to sundry film stars and cricketers. Mr Chopra did the nation proud by bagging the first track and field gold in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. How many children would remember him now, one and half years after he heaved the javelin with supreme confidence to telling effect? He is endowed with good looks, in addition to good physique. He should have been the obvious choice for brand ambassadorship for sports shoes, health drinks and trendy wear, to name but a few. But no Sir, no — in India, only cricketers and film stars make the grade as celebrities. Mr Chopra appearing in TV ads would be at once beneficial for the nation starved of sporting success on a scale that nations like the US and China achieve, as well as for the brands’ fortunes. It is a small mercy that PV Sindhu gets to be seen tapping a Bank of Baroda card. Featuring Mr Chopra in fact would din it into young minds that there are sports beyond cricket and productive pastime beyond films. Our television audience, which cheers at every ball hurled and every stroke made by our cricketers, sadly did not even know that history was being created in Tokyo by Neeraj Chopra.
In fact, film stars are such a rage on our TV channels that celebrity fatigue seems to have set in, with viewers reaching for the remote during commercial breaks in general and after ad nauseam repetition of celeb ads in particular. The badshah of brand endorsements, Amitabh Bachchan, has been the face of brands as varied as Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, Navratna Oil, Dr Fixit, Gujarat Tourism, Mankind, Pepsi, Rin, Ghari Detergent, upGrad, Flipkart, Tata Sky, Cycle Agarbatti, FirstCry, Tanishq and Kalyan Jewellers. He has probably endorsed more brands than any other actor in the world. The latest in his bag is Indian Oil. His dalliance with brands goes to the extent of smugly endorsing rival brands — Ghadi detergent after having endorsed Rin once and IDFC First now after having endorsed ICICI Bank — after admittedly waiting for one contract with one to run its course before starting a new innings with a rival. In any other nation, such implicit denunciation of the brand he once endorsed would have raised ethical issues. Wouldn’t at least some of the ICICI Bank customers feel that IDFC is a better bank now that their demi-god has shifted his loyalties to a competitor?
The Consumer Protection Act in India has upped the ante to make celebrities more responsible. Celebrities endorsing misleading ads can be fined up to Rs10 lakh by the consumer protection authority. For repeat offences, the authority can impose a fine of up to Rs50 lakh and a jail term of up to five years. But it has hardly slowed down the barrage of celebrity ads on television. After all, Rs50 lakh is just a slap on the wrist for them, given the mind-boggling sums they are paid for endorsements. Unlike Mr Ogilvy, Indian advertising firms seem to be fixated with celebrities if only to lighten their jobs. Be that as it may.
Time was when advertisers used satisfied customers as their brand ambassadors. The Lalitaji character of Surf fame was one such. Actor Kavita Chaudhary’s face became as synonymous with Lalitaji as Surf was with detergents, until she took up the role of an IPS officer in the Doordarshan serial Udaan. Comparative advertising too held sway for some length of time. Modi Xerox took on HCL some three decades ago through this arguably cantankerous route. But its merit lies in producers focusing more on the quality and price of the product rather than setting store by the woolly notion that celebrities have a Midas touch. In addition, the grim prospect of being hauled over the coals for misstatement or disparagement compels the advertisers to bone up their facts and figures about their own and rival products before going public with their comparative ad.
Indeed, comparative ads do a signal service to the consumer cause —holding them by the scruff of their collars to look at relevant factors like two similarly-placed cars’ price, torque strength, braking power, mileage etc. rather than being swayed by extraneous considerations.
The writer is a freelance columnist for various publications and writes on economics, business, legal, and taxation issues