Two Minute Judgment: The Absurdity of Celebrity Liability

Holding celebrity ambassadors liable for the quality of the product they endorse allows us to expend our moral outrage, but has very little in the way of underlying logic.

Actor Madhuri Dixit was served a notice by the Haridwar Food and Drug Adminstration after Maggi noodles was found to contain extra lead. Credit: PTI

Actor Madhuri Dixit was served a notice by the Haridwar Food and Drug Adminstration after packets of Maggi noodles was found to contain substantial traces of lead. Credit: PTI

One of the more recent controversies in the world of advertising is the move to have the endorser of any product liable for the quality or authenticity of the same. It is not surprising that this has grabbed media lines as it involves celebrities whose value of endorsements at times exceeds their earnings from their profession, especially for sportsmen.

However, the issue of liability of celebrity endorsers raises several questions at the broader level. The situation today is that a celebrity endorses a product so that the public will purchase it on the strength of this persona. Otherwise there is no reason for the company to spend money paying the celebrity or the public for accepting this icon and getting influenced by the same. The celebrity endorses the product saying that you should buy it, but may not necessarily say it is safe and secure or meets the standards it is supposed to. Now something goes wrong with the product, and the celebrity is to be made liable. There are several instances of people buying a product or service based on the strength of the celebrity, which though a reflection of naïveté, is a reality. Therefore a strong case has been made against such endorsements.

Two thoughts come here. First the good or service is being provided by a company which should be responsible for the quality or whatever is supposedly promised. By passing this liability to the celebrity, the company is spared legal action, which is absurd. Second, all products are certified as being fit by a government authority and hence even the manufacturer or supplier of the service has actually gotten a stamp of approval from the relevant authority. In such a case, the blame should fall on the authority which certifies the product as being safe or meeting the laid down standards.

The celebrity however gets caught in this web because he or she is inevitably more newsworthy. The celebrity endorses any product that is endorsable for the sake of the money offered, which even you and I would do if offered the same. It is not the duty of the celebrity to check if the product meets specifications mentioned and the contract with the company clearly exculpates the celebrity from liability. It is very similar to a film star doing something inappropriate while acting in a movie, like say wooing a girl, which in Indian films often falls nothing short of eve-teasing and sexual harassment. If we extend the logic of celebrity liability to this, then these film stars would also need to be put behind bars.

This leads to the issues of who is a celebrity? Any model that comes for any advertisement stands the risk of being called a celebrity. Considering that once a person, who models for say five products, becomes a celebrity who is admired by the public at large, they run the risk of a similar liability. It is not just a cricketer or film star who is a celebrity. Also a small-time model that after say five years becomes a ‘film star’ would be held culpable for wrong endorsements in the past. These are the tricky issues that come up.

Now if the same is to be applied to the world of business, the judgment gets even more curious. All products which are advertised are done by marketing agencies whose job is to have consumers buy into the product or service. Logically speaking, anything amiss in the service has to be put on the advertising firm which creates the lines and slogans uttered by the celebrities. Will we go after the advertising firms for every product that is proved to be wrong? After all the model or celebrity merely reads out lines written by the agency which then should be more responsible for the wrong messages being conveyed. Hence, besides the producer of the good or service and the government agency which approves the same, there is also the advertising firm that must now come under the ambit of public scrutiny.

A slippery slope

Next, if we can blame a cricketer for endorsing a housing project which goes wrong, we must also start analysing our investment gurus. India has a number well-respected stock analysts, who are sometimes even bigger celebrities than film stars and cricketers, who come  on TV every day and talking about best investment opportunities.  They are the Gods of investment who have made millions through some well-orchestrated investing. It is mentioned clearly that they are not advising and take no responsibility, but the same holds for the celebrity  when a product is endorsed. Now if the public invest saying that they followed this expert and made losses, then should the stock analysts be put on trial?  Further, mutual funds and insurance companies have  fine print which asks you to take your own decisions, but often the common investor may miss it and follow what is put on screen or paper. Should these funds be penalised then?

Going one step further, state governments and their chief ministers make these tall promises of inviting investors by giving the official guarantees on a clean and speedy process. Can the investor, especially a foreign one, take the government to task for misleading the community by promising an easy environment but having proposals being stuck through the sticky processes? Chief ministers too should also be held culpable for misleading the investors.

Alongside investment, our tourism department and minister should be on guard. There is this entire campaign of ‘Incredible India’ where film stars and ministers invite foreign tourists to the country. Crimes against women are not uncommon in India and logically everyone associated with such campaigns should be held for trial starting from the minister in charge to the celebrity who is asking you to come to India.

Quite clearly, all this is absurd, as is the case of putting the celebrity on trial for endorsing a product that goes wrong. The provider of the service and the government department has to be responsible for the certification. Further if a product is allowed and advertisements are not, as is the case with liquor, a celebrity endorsing mineral water is doing no wrong as the concerned government department is happy with the concept.

Therefore, do not blame the celebrity. Blame instead our warped systems which are keen to attack soft targets all the time. It becomes very easy, as our middle class morality takes umbrage at the celebrity rather than the product, to take pleasure at the putting a celebrity in a tough spot.

Madan Sabnavis is Chief Economist, CARE Ratings.