Of celebrity endorsements and accountability

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It is said that if a business is legal, it is within the manufacturer’s right to promote it. Pundits say this even in the context of categories known to be health hazards – e.g. tobacco and alcohol. Among the many means of promotion (signage, point of sale merchandising etc.) advertising is considered to be the most effective. When ad agencies sign on a client they obviously ensure that the business is legal. And then come the other factors: client’s financial reputation, advertising budgets and so on.

As far as the actual product or service is concerned, the ad agency usually makes an effort to understand its strengths and weaknesses. If it is a car brand, the agency studies the manufacturing process, the features & their benefits. They would also make an effort to understand and assess the brand’s ‘weaknesses’ – customer service, geographical reach, expensive spare parts and such like. The job of the agency is to then figure out the best way to position the brand’s strengths and create brand preference. If the said car (hypothetically speaking) had a manufacturing defect (say, poorly performing brakes) there is little chance of the ad agency discovering it before the launch of the ad campaign.

If the ad campaign was to create a ripple and brand preference, the credit should go to the agency. However, if after launch there are reports of, say, brake failure which results in negative PR, can the ad agency be blamed? If they were aware that the product is faulty and still went on to create the ad, they would be. But usually the manufacturing process, quality control and such like are factors which the agency simply assumes to be ‘right’. They are also not equipped to detect any manufacturing defect or a systemic error in the manufacturing process of any brand – be it biscuits, noodles, juice, car or a ball bearing. In that context, to blame the celebrity who has signed up to be a spokesperson for the brand for the brand’s manufacturing issues, is silly.

Celebrities (at least the reputed ones) do all they can to associate themselves with good brands and companies. After all, being associated with a tainted brand affects the celebrity brand too. Celebrities make an effort to understand the brand’s core beliefs, its brand promise, the values of the company and so on. Some top notch celebrities are known to be choosy when it comes to brand association. Some bring ethics into the picture – choosing not to endorse tobacco brands, alcohol, fairness creams etc. The point is, most top notch celebrities do make an effort to ensure that they associate themselves with brands of repute. However, they (just as ad agencies) cannot know everything there is to know about a company or brand.

Lets say a celebrity signs on a corporate brand with great public image and launches an ad campaign. Months later, if a tax fraud were to sully the image of the company how can the celebrity share the blame? There is only so much a celebrity or ad agency can find out to assess if it is sound business partnership or not. They cannot be held responsible for all aspects of the product. Ad agencies do insist that brands must the walk the talk. For example, if an airline touts ‘great service’ as a claim, ad agencies as brand partners will emphasise that the brand ‘walk the talk’. But the actual delivery is not in the hands of the ad creators or the spokesperson (if they use one). The job of an agency is to present the best features of a product in a compelling manner to the audience. And ‘exaggeration’ is part of the game. But it is up to the manufacturer to ensure there is no huge gap between claim and actual delivery.

All telecom brands promise blazing speeds. The job of the ad agency is to dramatise it. But we all know that there is a gap between claim and delivery. Can the agency or brand ambassador (if used) be blamed for the poor service? I think not. Everyone knows that a new born baby is not going to start asking for the Wifi password as soon as its born – it is just a creative way of conveying the brand message. Sure there could be a gap in delivery of service but the ad agency cannot be blamed for it.

Consumers also know that advertising exaggerates. I don’t think anyone believes that using a brand of soap or deo can attract the opposite sex. Celebrities sure help the brand gain visibility, memorability, credibility and acceptance. But the ultimate test of brand success is the product performance. If  a soap or deo brand were to cause skin problems then the manufacturer is to be blamed, not the agency.

In the case of Maggi, the agency’s job was to best convey the brand proposition – ‘health bhi, taste bhi’ or whatever is the communication objective. The use of brand ambassador was just a part of the strategy to meet the objective. It is unlikely that the agency or the brand ambassador would have been aware of the ingredients and their permissible levels. As rightly pointed out here, the brand ambassadors should be left alone.

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  1. True that the brand ambassador cannot dig deep into the product background or its performance but is it not right that the brand ambassador should opt out when the whole world knows that there is something wrong in the product?

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