Celebrity advertising- Challenging credibility or influencing sale?

Did you know that our desi consumers were first wooed and wowed in the area of celebrity advertising, way back in 1941 by the most unlikely desi celebrity – Leela Chitnis – of Awara fame!

Celebrity advertising- Challenging credibility or influencing sale?
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Monojit Lahiri

First, an interesting factoid.

Did you know that our desi consumers were first wooed and wowed in the area of celebrity advertising, way back in 1941 by the most unlikely desi celebrity – Leela Chitnis – of Awara fame! She modelled for Lux Toilet Soap and instantly entered the history books as the first-ever desi model to feature in a brand earlier reserved only for the JWT-contracted Hollywood actresses. Today brand Lux is considered the Gold standard for aspirants and achievers and their featuring here is generally acknowledged as having arrived!

Leela Chitnis kicked off a category that cantered before galloping, navigating the twists and turns, moving with the times and altering with the needs of an landscape that was getting more complex & unpredictable by the day. The challenge of all brand custodians post-91 scenario – place their ear to the ground & hand on the pulse of the new-age Indian consumer, impatient, promiscuous, spoilt for choices with little affiliation to brand loyalty and even less to templates of the past. To add to this, globalisation, consumerism, disposable income, and rise of the working women with purchasing power made confusion confounded. As Bollywood and cricket were India’s undisputable ruling religions, why not – believed the Ad guys – co-opt them in our blueprint? They ensured stopper-value and memorability, two critical hooks to attract attention, generate interest, trigger demand and initiate action. Enter celebrity advertising.

As expected, the earliest samples of this genre were received with equal doses of curiosity and excitement. Stars endorsing brands? Really? Predictably, these ads were sky-high on noticeability and memorability. No celeb/Bollywood junkie could ignore these ads for sure. Euphoric on the brouhaha and buzz, they created Clients, Agencies and Stars forgot the one very simple and basic objective of this category of advertising: Sell the product!

Tragically, what happened then and continues now, in terms of converting viewers-to-customers is that while everyone remembers these ads & TVC’s with their favourite celebrities, alas, they clean forget the name of the brand/products! How can you blame them? For one, an SRK or Salman, Hrithik or Akshay Kumar, Deepika or Kareena, M.S. or Virat can dazzle the eyes of the viewers and make them forget what the endorsement was about. Secondly, in terms of the compatibility between celebrity and brand, credibility often can be strained beyond measure. Can you like the gorgeous Madhuri Dixit with Steel Grills, Big B with Zandu, cutie-pie, new-age Alia Bhatt with traditional Vicco, Greek god Hrithik with Paragon footwear, M.S. Dhoni with Bharat Matrimony, Virat with cough drops? Can any sane viewer ever believe that the celebs really use these brands?


As if these hysterical mismatches weren’t crazy enough, today serious social and political issues have entered the scene to polarise customer/viewer perspective. In a time where every thought, word, or deed is under the scanner, anything even remotely off-line – especially where religion is concerned – is in trouble. Tanishq is only one of a long list of so-called controversies that has plagued this space.

In recent times, Deepika Padukone’s appearance at the JNU campus during the protest reportedly invited a strong backlash with reports of her endorsed brands re-evaluating their partnership. Other examples abound.

Is it fair? Ad Industry heads recognise and admit that this is indeed a “grey area and a new rulebook needs to be scripted to navigate this mine-field.” Celebs personal convictions & beliefs must be clearly understood and green lighted before getting them on board, otherwise there could be an embarrassing clash of vision and values of the brand personality and the celeb.

It is imperative both are on the same page especially with the biggies. Problem, claim the pundits, arises because most brands have no views/ideas on ecology and environment, freedom of expression, cultural pluralism & diversity while many celebs – of the evolved kind, not caring to be diplomatic or hypocritical & practising what they preach – do. The best reflection comes from BBH’s Krishnan who articulates that “In today’s volatile environment, brands have to clearly understand that they’re buying the whole person, not just a part of them: namely, fame & screen presence. They are buying their next rant, scandal, political beliefs, even silence on major burning issues. And the challenge is of navigating this voice if it’s against the prevailing narrative.”

So, if it’s meaningful celeb endorsements you’re after guys, please handle with care – otherwise it will be a very expensive but entertaining time pass. Nothing more, nothing else!

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