Sugar-Coated Subjugation:Lie Back And Swallow

Deccan Herald 8/6/2014

David Beckham, with his killer smile and genteel southern English accent. If he is promoting a product then it can’t be bad – can it? And then there is also Sachin, Amitab, Kareena and all those other modern day cultural icons. To try to scrape by, they are compelled to endorse the ‘must-have’ products of the age. With some of these stars having contracts to endorse over a dozen items at a time, it’s a wonder they have any time left to do those bothersome activities – like act or hit a small ball.  
Edward Bernays is regarded as the father of modern day public relations and advertising. As the nephew of Sigmund Freud, Bernays knew how to manipulate the pain and pleasure centres of the brain. Thanks to him, governments and the ad industry soon learnt how to manage public perception. Many decades on from Bernays, officialdom the world over and the global ad industry have got things down to a fine art. Ad agencies, marketers and corporations know that by associating the reassuring faces of the famous with a particular product, the product and the message being conveyed will stick in the minds of the public. Especially so, if they keep on repeating the same ads over and over again — as they do.
Anyone would think they are trying to brainwash us. Sorry, it’s called perception management, or some other fancy industry term. Do it correctly, and you can sell almost anything to almost anyone. Bernays knew that almost a century ago.
Brand recall is what it’s all about. Tying the consumer to the product is what is required and identifying the reliability and apparent trustworthiness of certain famous faces with a particular brand is the order of the day.
For better or worse, large sections of the population actually look up to celebrities and what they say, do or endorse really matters. When we see their faces plastered on a billboard swigging back a fizzy drink, the implicit message is that these folks have ‘made it’ in life. Therefore, what they say or endorse has credibility. ‘Making it’ implies that they have usually been paid a shed load of cash for some activity of dubious worth like pretending to be who they are not (acting), swinging a wooden bat, or merely possessing the talent of mediocrity but having a damned good PR company behind them in order to convince us all that they are unique, wonderful people.
But where to draw the line? Where do ethics come into endorsing products of questionable worth that the celebrity would in reality perhaps not be seen dead wearing, using or eating? Did you really think their bathroom cabinets, fridges or food cupboards are bursting at the seams with all the products they promote?
Where to draw the line if a cosmetic has been tested on animals, or if a product involves sweated labour in the production process or its manufacture seriously damages the environment? Where to draw the line if consumerism is based on planned product obsolescence, conflict and war to grab the finite resources required to make the very commodities that are being endorsed? For some of the product endorsing cultural icons, the line might become buried so far beneath the flow of cash to obscure its very existence.
The celebrity endorsement market
Over three million television commercials are made each year in India. However, some 80 percent of people forget new information within just 24 hours. Marketers therefore bring a celebrity in an attempt to get the public to remember their product ahead of the competition. By associating an apparently trustworthy, famous face with your product, it is hoped that the consumer will develop instant recall.

From the late 1980s onwards, corporations have been increasingly turning to the likes of Amitab Bachan to help sell their stuff. Mister reliability himself Sachin Tendulkar has over the years been a more or less permanent fixture on urban billboards batting for various products. But even in this cricket-mad nation, Bollywood still manages to trump cricket in terms of popularity and selling power.

These days, many faces of the big screen can be more often seen on the small screen simply because they can and do earn more from appearing in TV commercials than in movies. The public are no fools, but the manufacturers know that branding matters and the bigger the star, the better the potential market capture of sales. And the list of so-called ‘role model’ movie stars or sports persons that have provided credibility to products intended for mass consumption is a long one.
Figures for 2013 indicate that Shah Rukh Kahn has 15 endorsement deals and charges Rs 8-10 crore for each one. MS Dhoni has 17 and rakes in Rs 10-12 crore a go. Salman Khan has 15 deals worth Rs 7 crore a shot. Hrithik has 6 at Rs 6-7 crore each. Sachin has 17 at Rs 5-6 crores a deal. Katrina Kaif has 12 at Rs 3.5-4 crore each. Bachchan has 10 deals at Rs 6-7 crore each. And Aishwarya Rai has a few deals at Rs 3.4-4 crore a time.
Film star Kareena Kapoor has been endorsing Coca Cola’s Limca soft drink for about 400,000 US dollars a year. In 2011, Sachin Tendulkar signed a three-year deal with Coca Cola worth 3.3 million US dollars.
To put these astronomical figures into perspective, in 2011 the annual per capita income of India was 1,552 US dollars.

Adex India Analysis listed Kareena Kapoor as the leading female endorser for the first half of 2010. Mahendra Singh Dhoni was listed as the leading male endorser. Bollywood stars accounted for 80 percent of all celebrity endorsers in TV adverts in 2009.

But does it work?

IPAN-IMRB Research in 2008 indicated that 86 percent of viewers remember celebrity ads, but only three percent feel celebrities affect buying decision. Product quality and price is the main reason for purchasing an item, according to 84 percent of those questioned. Surprisingly, just five percent believe stars only endorse a brand for money, and 22 percent believe celebrities use the products they endorse.

These figures might be a little disappointing for corporations who shell out a good deal of cash for celebrities to push their products, but such endorsements give them an important edge in what is an increasingly cluttered and competitive market place. And perhaps the figures mentioned above underestimate the importance of celebrity endorsement. Why else would hard-nosed corporations spend all that money just to have minimal impact?  

Some market analysts say that consumers are becoming more sophisticated and are less willing to believe anyone but themselves. But, it can’t be denied that a celebrity does boost credibility, trust and realism. Moreover, celebrities are used to bring in a certain degree of glamour and noticeability and may indeed sway the sometimes indecisive consumer to opt for one brand over another.

But marketers have to be careful. While endorsing products is highly financially lucrative for celebrities and can increase sales of a product, the public can see often through glib PR and are aware that certain stars may be prone to endorse any old tat as long as the wad of cash dangled in front of them is large enough. Many people are aware that the famous faces endorsing certain tacky products would never actually use these items themselves. If they see a particular celebrity endorsing multiple products here, there and everywhere, they will soon begin to question celebrity’s credibility.

Multi product endorsement may hint of short-term opportunism by both the celebrity and the marketer, but some celebrities seem to pull it off. Amitab Bachchan endorses products with widely varying target consumers, from baby massage oil to cement and diamonds. Bachchan has mass appeal and can ‘get away with it’. Similarly, Tendulkar has endorsed dozens of products over the years, from soft fizzy drinks to cameras and from pens to cars.

But like the products themselves, the shelf life of a celebrity is limited. In this particular world, celebrities are ‘products’ themselves. Tendulker’s cricket career is nearing its end, but others will take his place. His star might be fading, but Ranbir Kapoor and Virat Kohli are on the up in the product endorsement field. In 2013, both had around ten endorsement deals each. Kapoor charges Rs 7.5 to Rs 8 crore per deal, Kohli about Rs 3 crore.

Not all stars have great mass appeal, however, and as marketing assets are more limited when it comes to product endorsing. Tendulkar apart, a sportsperson may be limited to endorsing sports products. Certain celebrities might also have to be content with fitting into a specific niche. For example, ageing beauty queens of the big screen might be used to promote an anti-ageing cream.

But, of course, the celebrity must remain a good boy or girl. It might be best for the product manufacturer not to take on a big star who is suddenly in the media for all the wrong reasons, say for allegedly being in a vehicle that mowed over people sleeping at the side of the road. But some people can do no wrong it seems. Even that doesn’t appear to put much of a dent in a celebrity’s earning power, as corporations still line up to plaster the face in question on billboards to endorse to his bank balance’s delight.

But that’s India for you. To the never ending joy of marketers, movie stars, no matter what they may or may not have done, no matter what terrible crimes or misdeeds they might or might not have indulged in, are gods. They are worshiped. The likes of Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie or Jennifer Lopez have nothing on their Indian counterparts.

The cultural impact

If commercials do one thing, apart from sell products that is, they tend to trivialize important issues and reduce them to some marketable slogan. Simplicity works and high-impact celebrities and sound-bites add to the simplicity. Think of all those TV commercials on English language channels that reduce everything to a lowest common denominator selling point: ‘white is in dark is out’ (skin colouring to ‘look white’ and boost status); ‘because you’re worth it’ (self esteem reduced to wearing nail varnish or lipstick); and ‘its very, very sexy’ (the nature of sexuality reduced to the effects of a deodorant). Complex issues are turned into sound-bite commodity forms and reduced to brand identities to push sales in the market place.

Apart from cynically turning important issues into banal slogans to sell stuff, commercials and celebrity product endorsement can have other far-reaching consequences. Co-opting famous faces to sell products has the obvious effect of validating the products in the eyes of the public. But once celebrity product endorsement becomes commonplace, the vast sums celebrities receive for endorsements become ‘normalized’ and implicit notions of not only acquisitive materialism, but the ‘free’ market itself become rubber stamped. The message is – gross inequality and conspicuous consumption is ‘natural’, the way life is, the way life has to be and there is not much wrong with it.  

The celebrity is giving a stamp of approval for the prevailing system. Little wonder then that celebrities have become associated with huge money-spinning sports events as a result of their sponsorship deals. Little wonder that they are associated too with wealthy corporations that are colonizing many areas of life by funding charity foundations and influential, strategically well-placed research institutes. With the product endorsing celebrity in tow, life is becoming cast according to a certain predefined image laid down out by these corporations. 

Corporate consumerism’s world view is becoming the norm. This ‘way of the world’ is becoming self-perpetuating and deeply culturally ingrained within the public psyche. Validated by the celebrity, it is slowly becoming immune from criticism because fewer and fewer people might never question its legitimacy or even recognize it for being the controlling culture that it is.

Regardless of what people may think about the ethics concerning the promotion of certain products of dubious worth or being the public face of particular corporations with often dodgy practices with regard to human rights or the environment, the underlying aim of celebrity product endorsement is to bind the public to a product and by implication to the company behind it and ultimately the ideology of the system, so-called economic neo-liberalism. Positive notions about ‘individual freedom’ (via consuming) and the market constituting the best method for supplying human needs are being constantly and implicitly reinforced. Today, this is what the celebrity is ultimately endorsing. This is what they are selling their souls for. 
Some might argue: what’s the big deal if a celebrity endorses a cola, a facial cream or a food product? It’s not like they are promoting an oil-thirsty, conflict-ridden system of consumer capitalism, is it? The raw materials come from somewhere, they are acquired somehow. What is happening to our forests, our rivers, our farmers and our environment is very often connected to the many conflicts in the world and to what eventually ends up on the billboards, on the store shelf, on our plates and in our homes.  
As long as the sugar coating on the pill, the celebrity, has people lining up to adore them, no matter what they do, no matter what they endorse, who is to be aware, who is to care? Just lie back and swallow.