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AdStand: Of fairness and the celebrity code

The trolling of one celebrity and the code of conduct coming in the same week are disconnected events, but have set new roles of engagement for brands. Will we in advertising really follow what we believe are the correct ways of using a celebrity?

This has been an interesting week. One celebrity took on his entire fraternity over a category they endorse, and Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) released a code of conduct for celebrities who endorse brands. The trolling of one celebrity and the code of conduct coming in the same week are disconnected events, but have set new roles of engagement for brands.

The crux of the issue

India has a major fascination for fair skin. At roughly Rs 3,000 crore, skin fairness is possibly the largest personal care category in India. The earliest brand in this category was Afghan Snow. Way back in 1950s they had Miss India’s endorsing the brand. Though it directly didn't say fairness cream, it alluded to making skin fair and giving it a ‘snow’ like feel. Surprisingly, the brand is still available on Amazon.

Fair & Lovely slowly ambushed Afghan Snow by building a huge guilt trip in would-be brides by stressing that fair skin gets better grooms. In the 70s, that was a big appeal and slowly Fair & Lovely started to gain acceptance. Today, across companies there are many celebrities who endorse ‘skin whitening’ creams for both men and women.

In 2014, ASCI had issued guidelines on the advertising of fairness and skin-lightening creams in an effort to curb the spread of misleading ideas and discrimination. The guidelines specified that advertising cannot communicate any discrimination based on skin colour nor can it use post-production visual effects to exaggerate product efficacy, amongst others.

Abhay Deol’s stunning attack

In the light of these guidelines, the Abhay Deol has made a stunning attack on all his compatriots. He has raised all the issues that ASCI has laid down because, despite the guidelines, most brands do flout them and these are large brands that rule the category.

Beyond ASCI guidelines, Abhay Deol has raised the issue on the very existence of the category. His point whether the category should even exist as ‘fairness’ category is worth debating. Fairness is not a fair category, but can the category be really curbed? Thanks to years of cultural imperialism, it is fair skin that is a big definer of beauty in India. So much so that when one odd brand uses a ‘dusky’ model, it becomes big news. This is one war that will need more than a lone voice.

Will ASCI’s guidelines for celebrities work?

The new ASCI guidelines that have been put down for celebrity endorsement are very tough.

First, who is a celebrity?

That is defined as someone who receives payment in lieu of appearing in advertising. The definition goes beyond entertainment and sports personalities, but does stop short of ‘influencers’ in social media. May be the code should get upgraded to include anyone who gets paid to propagate brand message.

The second part is what is expected of the celebrity. The celebrities should do due diligence to ensure that all description, claims and comparisons made in the advertisements they appear in or endorse are capable of being objectively ascertained and capable of substantiation and should not mislead or appear deceptive.

This is far reaching. This means when a celebrity female star plays the role of mother in an instant noodle commercial which claims that she feeds her children the noodles because they have nutritional benefits, then she has to believe that the claim is true. Till this point it is still doable. Brands do have tests and data that can be substantiated on many counts.

But how will a male film star be convinced that use of a deodorant will have him inundated with female adulation? Or that a particular undergarment is so lucky that it will change his fortune? Or that the straps of a particular slipper are so strong that he can save girls falling off the cliff or that fairness creams open a world of opportunities, or the film star can jump off a cliff to grab a bottle of cola?

The previous guidelines that ASCI had put down for fairness creams have not been followed in true spirit. Will we in advertising really follow what we believe are the correct ways of using a celebrity? And will we as people who create the appeal for brands extend it to influencers too?

May be we need more Abhay Deols.

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