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Rediff.com  » Business » Maggi controversy: Is it right to hold the endorser responsible?

Maggi controversy: Is it right to hold the endorser responsible?

June 05, 2015 10:34 IST

The debate is raging.

MaggiDon’t shoot me, I’m only the brand ambassador: Rajeev Raja

Putting brand ambassadors in the cross hair will not solve the problem.

There’s a furious debate raging in government offices, living rooms, lounge bars and cyberspace whether celebrities should be held responsible for the quality of the products they endorse.

Of course, this discussion will take a lot more than ‘2 minutes’ to find a resolution and has the potential to open a proverbial can of worms or in this case many, many packets of lead.

On the subject of celebrity endorsement, let’s set aside baser considerations such as opportunism, greed, morality, brand fit, etc.

These notions are for discussion another time, another day.

Let’s stick to the question at hand.

Is the government right in holding brand ambassadors culpable, if a product they endorse turns out to have feet of clay, or a surfeit of monosodium glutamate?

The answer to me, is a resounding no!

If this attempt to muzzle celebrities is coming from a deep seated resentment that we the proletariat while working our posteriors off, may never earn in a lifetime what the stars earn from one endorsement, then that’s a different matter.

But I fail to see how turning the screws on celebs is going to solve anything.

Will holding them responsible for the quality of a product ensure that those very quality standards are met by the manufacturer?

Will your ordinary celeb ever know the difference between Sucrose and Aspartame?

Or MSG and Milk of Magnesia?

Is he or she ever going to be an expert on sodium levels, cholesterol count, hydrogenation, trans fats, mono-unsaturates, poly-unsaturates, starch, carbohydrates, protein, potassium and dietary fibre?

Even if the lure of the lucre motivates the celeb to spend a lifetime becoming as qualified as an Food and Drug Administration official on Food Safety and Hygiene, what’s to prevent a manufacturer from saying one thing on the pack and adding a handful of extra gluten while nobody’s looking?

Is the celeb expected to sample every third pack of the products he endorses?

To add to this, the government’s attempt to make celebs answerable for their endorsements, is only going to spawn another barrage of legal loopholes.

It is said that the stars involved in the Maggi brouhaha, have already indemnified themselves in their contracts against manufacturer lapses; while others are scrambling to include the indemnity clause.

Now whether this will hold up in a court of law is a whole grey area.

So in sum I say leave the celebs, who are only playing cameo roles, alone and shift the spotlight to the main actors: the manufacturer and the government.

Yes, dear friends, to me the responsibility falls squarely on these two pairs of shoulders.

How many manufacturers ‘hand on heart’ are following the norms?

And how many officials in food authority departments are playing the ‘nod and wink’ game with manufacturers, in return for copious amounts of chai paani?

The entire system of self-regulation by manufacturers and external regulation by government needs an overhaul.

Putting brand ambassadors in the cross hair will not solve the problem. Let’s put some honesty and integrity in the mix.

Now there’s some food for thought!

Rajeev Raja has spent over 25 years in advertising. He is Founder and ‘Soundsmith’ of BrandMusiq.

Yes, the endorser is culpable: Sandeep Goyal

Let us start at the very beginning. If we look at Section 24 (2) of the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006 in conjunction with Section 53 of the same Act under which Madhuri Dixit is sought to be held liable and culpable in the Maggi issue, a person who ‘orally’, ‘in writing’ or ‘by visual representation’ makes false claims about the nutritional value of the product or the efficacy of the product without providing any scientific justification stands in violation of the Act.

Section 53 makes the person who is a party to such false advertisement liable to pay up to Rs 10 lakh (Rs 1 million) and states that false representation on the label is not a defence. Section 2 (1) (r) of the Consumer Protection Act, 1986 is largely similar.

It not only covers food products but also other ‘goods’ as defined under the same legislation.

So, broadly, food or non-food, the legal provisions are basically the same.

I am sure the highly-paid lawyer who whetted Ms Dixit’s multi-crore contract with Nestle must have told her so -- she needed to be sure that she was not mis-representing facts, knowingly or un-knowingly.

But perhaps the lure of crores of rupees that accompany a juicy endorsement blinded the ‘dhak-dhak’ girl (nay, Mom as in the Maggi ad). She’s got serious stuff piled on her.

Look at the sections of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 that Amitabh Bachchan, Preity Zinta and Madhuri Dixit have been sued under.

These are: 270 -- Malignant act likely to spread infection of disease dangerous to life, 272 -- Adulteration of food or drink intended for sale, 273 -- Sale of noxious food or drink, 420 -- Cheating and dishonestly inducing delivery of property.

The last is especially interesting and relevant to this debate.

The power of celebrity advertising has always been the power to stimulate emulative action.

The exploitation of the common man’s belief ‘If it is good enough for them, it is good enough for me’ has been the single most important reason for brands to hire celebrities to push brands and brands’ goodness.

Which brings us to the role of TRUST in these transactions.

Consumers (many, perhaps most, of whom are fans of the endorsee) trust the endorsee.

Hence, by endorsing a product they have never used, don’t know enough about, never cared to check quality of, ambassadors could actually be cheating those who trust them.

And now when things have erupted in volcanic rage, they cannot play coy or innocent. Section 420 is well worth a look-see by a competent judge.

According to the US Trade Commission, an actor playing himself in an ad is liable, but not when he is playing a character from a movie.

Actually the guys in advertising should be celebrating! With this controversy both brands and endorsees are going to lie low for a while.

Abating of the usual mad scramble of my-celebrity-is-bigger-than-yours may actually help better brand ideas, and better advertising ideas to bloom. Section 420 should put a rightful scare into a few marketers, and stars !

Sandeep Goyal is an advertising veteran, having worked at some of India’s best-known agencies over the past 30 years.

Rajeev Raja and Sandeep Goyal
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