Aamir Khan and the Intolerance Debate – II
by Abhinav Agarwal on 02 Jan 2017 2 Comments
At the time of this brouhaha over Aamir Khan’s controversial remarks and calls for SnapDeal to drop him as brand ambassador, this writer had attempted to understand and explain the perils of celebrity brand endorsements. I noted that celebrity brand endorsements were a double-edged sword for companies, and they could not expect to bask in the glow of celebrity endorsements but shy away from being singed when those celebrities played with fire.


Companies go for star brand endorsements in the hopes of quick returns – increased sales, jump in stock-price, brand recall, and brand equity. A study found “sales for brands in a variety of consumer-product categories jumped an average of 4 percent in the six months following the start of an endorsement deal, even after controlling for advertising expenditures and other factors that could be expected to drive up sales.”


Brands sign up celebrities so as to build positive associations between the star and the brand. Which is why makers of children’s goods like toys, foods, and baby care products will rope in actresses with a maternal appeal (which rules out single Bollywood starlets, as they would not be caught dead endorsing baby products). It helps gain acceptance, brand recall, and companies hope that the association with the celebrity will transfer attributes from the celebrity to the brand. This is important for a brand to build differentiation in the market as that enables a brand to charge a premium over other, similar, commodity goods. Premium pricing is the name of the game.


Celebrity brand endorsements, however, are also a sign of sloth. In the normal course, it takes time, money, and hard work to build a brand. It takes neither time nor hard work nor skill to take a celebrity and plaster him/her in front of your company’s product. The results are, like noodles, almost instantaneous. But stars, when they fall, also take down the brands they endorse; examples of Tiger Woods, Bill Cosby, and Maria Sharapova serve as warnings. Why is that?


Companies want consumers to buy their products because of the celebrity endorsing their product. Companies indirectly say – “See this celebrity actor? He is a handsome, successful, charming, witty, personable fellow (or so he appears in his movies) that you would want to bring home to your family to meet. He is appearing in an advertisement for our product, endorsing our product. So of course, our product is also as good as this celebrity. Therefore, buy our product and you will become as handsome, successful, charming, witty, and personable as …” This is the essence of brand associations. Sometimes companies also want to impart a certain elitism to their products; having a celebrity implies you are not a cheapskate and are willing to put down serious money for a celebrity endorsement.


So what went wrong in the case of Aamir Khan? Let’s start with the help of a hypothetical (repeat hypothetical) discussion between a child and her father.


Child: Appa

Father: Yes chinna.


Child: Appa, I saw that actor on TV saying his wife is scared, she fears for her child, she wants to leave India.

Father: Really?


Child: Yes, and at school my teacher said it’s because Hindus have been threatening people, and that the PM has been threatening minorities and that’s why Aamir Khan’s wife wants to leave India. I didn’t threaten anyone. Are we Hindus bad?

Father: Hmm, of course not, chinna. That’s not true at all.


Child: So why is the actor saying all those things?

Father: Well, sometimes people say things that are not true


Child: Why? Didn’t his parents and teachers and friends tell him not to speak lies?

Father: I am sure his parents and teachers and friends all told him not to speak lies.


Child: Then why is he telling a lie?

Father: It is complicated china.


Child: Like math? But I don’t find math complicated.

Father: Sometimes people want to appear good, so they say things that are not true.


Child: How can a person be good if he says things that are not true?

Father: Sometimes people say things so they will get money.


Child: But how can people do that? Is money everything for them? Doesn’t he have enough money?

Father: And sometimes people say things that are not true but they still go ahead and say those things because they don’t like other people.


Child: What are you saying? What do you mean?

Father: Let’s take an example. Let’s assume there are two people - one is called “A” and the other is called “B”. If “A” does not like “B”, or if “A” doesn’t like anyone who is like person “B”, then “A” will say things about “B” that are not true.


Child: All the time?

Father: No, not all the time, but certainly some of the time.


Child: So how can I believe this person “A” then? How do I know he is not lying at all time?

Father: This is why we must not accept anything that someone says without first checking for ourselves.


Child: But appa, the newspapers said it was true.

Father: This is why our newspapers have a duty, a sacred duty, to not just report but also investigate.


Child: Did the newspapers examine this actor’s statements?

Father: Yes, they should have, and they should have said that what the actor said was not true, but they didn’t.


Child: Why not?

Father: Because sometimes newspapers also don’t want to do what’s right.


Child: Why not?

Father: It is complicated chinna. Perhaps some other time.


Child: But this actor also comes on television talking good things about a company. Is he telling the truth there?

Father: Why do you ask?


Child: If this actor can lie in one place, how do I know he is not lying elsewhere? Maybe he tells lies all the time. Maybe he is lying when he comes in the ad and asks people to buy from that company.

Father: Good question.


Child: So why do you have that company’s app on your phone? If the company pays money to someone who lies, how do I know that they will they sell something good to us and not lie simply to get our money?

Father: Hmm... good question. What do you think I should do?

Child: Don’t buy anything from that company.


Therein lies the rub with celebrity brand endorsements. As perishes the celebrity, so it perils the brand, especially when the brand association is very strong. If the advertising is effective, and the brand association built through advertising is strong, then I, as a consumer, will buy a company’s products because I believe the celebrity when he/she tells me to do so.


Now, if the celebrity says, “India is ‘intolerant’, its people ‘intolerant’,” and so on, it creates cognitive dissonance in my mind that I must resolve. If I believe the celebrity is honest, then I must also believe that he truly believes his second statement, i.e., that India is “intolerant” and that there is “despondency” around. If on the other hand, if I believe the celebrity is being manipulative for commercial (or worse) reasons, then I must discount his first statement too; i.e., that the celebrity is insincere when advertising for the brand and insincere when making public statements. This the risk a company runs when signing up celebrities as its brand ambassadors – the risk of the celebrity turning rogue!


One argument put forth is that a call for a boycott is nothing short of bullying and intimidation; one journalist went as far as to call it “sickening”. That, frankly, is a ridiculous argument to make. At the end of the day, a boycott is among the more civilised expressions of dissent. To make sure we stay within the context, we are talking of people choosing not to buy from a particular company or a product. We are not talking of a social boycott here. The target of companies is the consumer’s wallet. The consumer, when choosing to boycott the company, is conversing in the same language. Any form of protest, to be effective, has to materially affect the target of the protest.


Another argument against a boycott is that the celebrity’s personal views should not be conflated with the product, or products, the celebrity is endorsing. That is valid if the personal opinion is expressed within the confines of a private space. When expressed in a public forum, as Aamir Khan did, it ceases to be a personal opinion, and becomes irretrievably public.


Almost nothing a celebrity does in public remains personal or private. Remember Mel Gibson, the Hollywood actor who was arrested for drunken driving in 2006. During his arrest, Gibson exploded into a tirade against Jews. This led to an almost decade-long boycott of Gibson by Hollywood. Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic views should have been his personal opinion and it should have been no one’s business that he held such views. But once made public, it would mean a complete abdication of personal responsibilities as citizens if one did not protest against racism, religious phobia, and socially undesirable behaviour by those held up in society as role models. What was true in Gibson’s case was equally valid in Aamir Khan’s case.


SnapDeal quietly discontinued Aamir Khan as brand ambassador in February 2016, choosing not to renew its contract with the actor. This was, however, the last “victory” that the pro-boycott group would achieve. We shall see why in the concluding part.


Disclaimer: views expressed are personal.

(To be concluded)

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