Harish Bijoor, who runs an eponymous brand consulting firm, underlines why top celebs must stay away from the herd mentality. “Let everybody do it. But if you are a Dhoni and a Kohli, then you must not do it
This is one record that MS Dhoni and Virat Kohli may not be proud to have under their belt. The cricketers occupy the top two slots of the ‘non-compliant celebs’ list compiled by ASCI, the self-regulatory body of the advertising industry. “Celebrities continue to mislead consumers,” screams the annual report, which highlights a shocking data. With 503 advertisements under the scanner, there has been a staggering 803 percent jump in advertisements processed against celebs in FY23. The corresponding number for last year stood at 55. Other celebs on the top 10 infamous chart are Bhuvan Bam, Jim Sarbh, Vishal Malhotra, Shraddha Kapoor, Ranveer Singh, Shibani Dandekar, and Sara Ali Khan.
Manisha Kapoor explains how and why Dhoni and Kohli have scored briskly. Tictok Skill Games—the company behind the brand WinZO, which has Dhoni as brand ambassador—doesn’t inform consumers about the financial or habit-formation risk, points out the chief executive officer of ASCI. It’s mandatory for real-money games to run a disclaimer in their ads. ‘This game involves an element of financial risk and may be addictive. Please play responsibly and at your own risk’ is how the disclaimer goes. “There is also no evidence of celebrity due diligence,” adds Kapoor.
The reckless behaviour of the celebs has got brazenly amplified this year. In 97 percent of the ads scanned by ASCI, the celebrities have failed to provide evidence of due diligence as mandated by the Consumer Protection Act. “Brands rope in celebs to make the most of the credibility and the trust that they have among consumers,” she says. While Kohli has over 249 million followers on Instagram, Dhoni has over 42 million on the platform. “Celebs must behave responsibly,” she says, adding that Kohli, who endorses Mobile Premier League, has been ‘non-compliant’.
In January, the government released endorsement guidelines on celebs and social media influencers. “They (celebs) should not endorse any product or service in which due diligence has been done by them or that they have not personally used or experienced,” underlined one of the norms drafted by the department of consumer affairs. Celebrities and influencers, points out the ‘Endorsement know-hows’, are advised always to review and satisfy themselves that the advertiser is in a position to substantiate the claims made in the advertisement.
Four months down the line, the ASCI annual report exposes the accentuated mess of irresponsible advertising and misleading advertisements. Among the most notorious segments, gaming has overtaken education to top the chart. An astonishing 92 percent of ads missed adding the required disclaimer that informs consumers of the financial and addiction risks. In December 2021, ASCI rolled out guidelines for real-money gaming commercials given the extent and seriousness of harm they it could bring upon consumers considering the financial risk involved. Not much seems to have changed. This year, real-money gaming emerged as the most non-compliant sector. Over 50 percent of the ads that required modification have not complied with the Consumer Complaints Council recommendations. Also read: The whole picture: Apart from content, what can attract more eyeballs on TV?
There is a strict law, and there are even stringent norms in place, but still the menace persists. Shirish Deshpande explains the ‘why’ behind the alarming trend that has only gathered steam over the last few years. “There is no execution,” says the activist-lawyer who has been fighting for consumer rights over the last few decades. “So do we have a dog that only barks?” I ask the veteran activist. “The barking dog never bites,” he smiles. Okay, then is there any point in having a Consumer Protection Act if the ones flouting it never get punished? Deshpande, however, has a different take. “There has to be a stringent act. And there is one. What is lacking, though, is willpower,” he says, adding that you can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Deshpande lauds the legislative intent but wants action on the ground. Earlier, there were provisions for imprisonment for flouting norms, but somehow they got diluted. “If you are only going to impose a fine, however hefty it is, it’s not going to hurt the celebs,” says Deshpande. He, however, reckons that ‘name and shame’—take, for instance, releasing the list of the offenders—might have an impact. “Take strict action. This will act like a deterrent, and next time, they will think a million times,” he says.
Meanwhile, marketing and branding experts call for serious introspection by the celebs. Take, for instance, a flurry of surrogate advertising in which actors and cricketers are seen endorsing. Cricketers Virender Sehwag, Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev are seen endorsing Kamla Pasand, a pan masala brand, which has been advertising ‘cardamom’ on TV. Actors like Shah Rukh Khan, Ajay Devgn and Akshay Kumar too endorse Vimal, a tobacco brand, which has been beaming surrogate commercials for ‘elaichi’ (cardamom). So, everybody is doing it, and there is loads of money to be made. Harish Bijoor, who runs an eponymous brand consulting firm, however, underlines why top celebs must stay away from the herd mentality. “Let everybody do it. But if you are a Dhoni and a Kohli, then you must not do it,” he says, explaining the hierarchy of brand ambassadors and celebs. “There are brand endorsers who live on the Earth and then there are some who live on stratosphere,” he says. “Dhoni and Kohli are stratosphere guys,” he says, adding that such celebs are revered, respected and blindly followed. “They must not play this game at all.”
A point well made, but will celebs start playing responsibly? Will they lead from the front and dump the misleading ads? Well, there is too much at stake. In the case of celebs, what’s primary, though, is credibility and trust. Not money.