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Maggi controversy: Are celebrity brand ambassadors really culpable?

One of India’s most trusted brands is in a soup. Accusations are flying thick. But are brand ambassadors culpable when the brands they endorse land in trouble? Marketers, advertising honchos, brand consultants share their views

Maggi controversy: Are celebrity brand ambassadors really culpable?

One of India’s most trusted brands is in a soup. Accusations are flying thick. But are brand ambassadors culpable when the brands they endorse land in trouble? Marketers, advertising honchos, brand consultants share their views

Shanta Saikia & Aanchal Kohli | Delhi | June 4, 2015

Maggi's brand ambassadors Madhuri Dixit, Amitabh Bachchan and Preity Zinta Maggi's brand ambassadors Madhuri Dixit, Amitabh Bachchan and Preity Zinta

The controversy over lead and MSG content in Maggi noodles in excess of the permitted limit has assumed gigantic proportions. What started in one state (Uttar Pradesh) has spread like wildfire across the country, compounding problems for the 30-year-old mega brand from Nestle India.

The brand has already been taken off the shelves in UP and Kerala. Delhi has imposed an immediate 15-day ban on sale of Maggi noodles and has asked Nestle to recall current stocks from the Capital. Meanwhile, Big Bazaar, run by the Future Group, has taken Maggi noodles off the shelves from all its stores for the time being.

It is now learnt that the Army has issued an advisory to its personnel asking them not to eat Maggi and has also asked canteens not to sell the brand till further orders.

In a statement, Nestle India said that it was fully cooperating with the authorities who are conducting further tests and was awaiting their results. The statement further said: “We have also submitted samples of Maggi noodles from almost 600 product batches to an external laboratory for independent analysis and we tested samples from almost 1,000 batches at our accredited laboratory. These samples represent around 125 million (12.5 crore) packets. All the results of these internal and external tests show that lead levels are well within the limits specified by food regulations and that Maggi noodles are safe to eat. We are sharing these results with the authorities.”

Even as the brand is under intense scrutiny, the celebrity endorsers of Maggi – Madhuri Dixit, Amitabh Bachchan and Preity Zinta – are also feeling the heat. While Madhuri currently endorses the brand, Amitabh and Preity have been past brand ambassadors. The Government has said that strict action would be taken for any violation, including against the brand ambassadors of Maggi.

Sections 52 and 53 of the Food Standards and Safety Authority of India (FSSAI) Act prescribe the punishment for selling misbranded food and also for misleading advertisements. Section 53 prescribes that “any person who publishes, or is a party to the publication of an advertisement, which falsely describes any food or is likely to mislead as to the nature or substance or quality of any food or gives false guarantee shall be liable to a penalty which may extend to Rs 10 lakh.”

A Bihar court has ordered registration of an FIR against Madhuri Dixit, Amitabh Bachchan and Preity Zinta for endorsing Maggi. The Haridwar Food and Drug Administration has served a notice to Madhuri on the claims made in the Maggi ad. Reacting to the controversy, Madhuri tweeted: “Like most of India, I have enjoyed Maggi noodles for years. I was very concerned after recent reports and met with the Nestle team” / “Nestle explained that they always place the consumer first and have the highest quality standards” / “Nestle has reassured me that they adhere to stringent testing for quality and safety and are working with the authorities closely.”

Preity, too, took to Twitter to clarify her stand by saying: “Reading the news about me being sued for doing the Maggie (sic) commercial over 12 years ago? 12 years ago? How does that happen?”

Amitabh, on the other hand, said that he had he stopped promoting the brand two years ago and added that he would cooperate with what the law said.

The entire controversy is seen as having significant implications for celebrity brand endorsements in the future. spoke to a cross section of marketers, brand consultants, advertising honchos to gauge their reactions to the entire controversy and the implications for the advertising industry.

On what grounds are brand ambassadors culpable?

Sanjay Tripathy Sanjay Tripathy

Sanjay Tripathy, Senior Executive Vice-President - Marketing, Product, Digital & E-Commerce, HDFC Life:

“Celebrity endorsement is a form of advertising where a celebrity uses his/her fame to help promote a product or service. Brands build and capitalise on borrowed equity to build credibility, recall and imagery. It is an equation where the company provides the tangible (the product), and the celebrity the intangible (reputation, popularity, credibility, etc.) to make that elusive connect with the consumer.”

“Keeping in mind this equation, it is the responsibility of the company to ensure that the product that they are producing best enables the celebrity to promote the product. It is neither the responsibility of the celebrity nor in the purview of the celebrity to get involved in the specifics or the quality of the product. That is the job of the company.”

“So legally, and from a business point of view, the brand ambassador is not culpable at all for the quality of the final finished product.”

“Having said that, it is the same intangible reason for which the celebrity is recruited that makes the celebrity morally liable for the product that he/she is hawking to the public. The intangible equity that the celebrity brings to the table is the connect he/she has with the public, and the faith which the public places on them. Celebrities are opinion leaders, and as opinion leaders, they have a moral obligation that those who follow them do not get led down the wrong path.”

“Hence, celebrities are responsible for the quality of their image. They may be held responsible for what they are endorsing or not terminating their contract with the company post finding out the product claim was misleading. But for the quality of the product, or the product claims – that responsibility lies squarely in the court of the company.”

“In the world of brands and product, celebrities are merely the last leg of a very long process. To throw out the baby with the bathwater, and say anyone associated with a product is responsible when things go wrong, is not only harsh, it is untrue.”

Harish Bijoor Harish Bijoor

Harish Bijoor, Brand expert & CEO, Harish Bijoor Consults Inc:

“This business of roping in brand ambassadors into culpability is all about the concept of ‘extended liability’ kicking in. In reality, the manufacturer is the first entity that is liable for any default. And that is a limited and specific liability. After this, the person selling it comes into purview. To that extent any retailer selling it could be considered participating in the action of sales and promotion. And then of course the brand ambassador, as he or she touts the product on media. Brand ambassadors, however, do ensure that their agreements pack in the clause that says that they are indemnified against product fault.”

KV Sridhar KV Sridhar

KV Sridhar, Chief Creative Officer, SapientNitro India:

“It is completely unfair to hold a celebrity responsible for something like this. It is the responsibility of the company that has been manufacturing a product after getting an approval from the government. It is to my sense is very unfair and sad.”

Ashish Bhasin Ashish Bhasin

Ashish Bhasin, Chairman & CEO South Asia, Dentsu Aegis Network:

“The law is against the fact that if any celebrity is promoting or endorsing any illegal product which is bad for health, etc., then he/she is held accountable, but it is unfair to hold a brand ambassador liable for a product like this, as Maggi is a big product and was cleared, tested and checked by the government.”

Indranil Das Blah Indranil Das Blah

Indranil Das Blah, CEO, Kwan Media:

“There is no logical basis and reasoning behind celebrities being held accountable as they are just the face of the product that they are endorsing. They are not involved in any kind of research and development in terms of creating a product, rather they are endorsing what is approved and cleared by the government.”

Ramesh Chembath Ramesh Chembath

Ramesh Chembath, Business Head Cooking Appliances, Usha International:

“To an extent the endorsers should also do their homework before taking a brand on their name, but when it comes to such legal issues they are not to be held responsible as they cannot be a part of the technical framework. He or she will not know what Maggi is technically made of as they are not technical experts. Brand ambassador can take care of certain things, but not in-depth things like this.”

Partho Dasgupta Partho Dasgupta

Partho Dasgupta, Chief Executive Officer, BARC India:

“I would think the legal clauses in their agreements would give them indemnity for such eventualities.”

Should the media platforms that carry the ads also be held accountable?

Sanjay Tripathy: “Media platforms have little to no role to play in the equation of brand credibility. Their role in this situation is to provide a space – a blank canvas for the brand to fill as the brand finds fit. They do not get involved in the message or what the brand does with the space that it has purchased.”

Partho Dasgupta: “You can’t shoot the messenger! Media is not expected to check product or service quality issues. I guess if there is something wrong in the way the advertising projects a product, one can complain to ASCI, which is a very proactive organisation.”

Indranil Das Blah: “Yes, then even government and all legal authorities attached to the brand and its making should be held accountable. As without their permission, no brand can sell.”

Ashish Bhasin: “Media should be liable only if they are running the ads of illegal products.”

Ramesh Chembath: “Yes, if this logic will extend, then all will come in the picture. They all will be held responsible.”

Harish Bijoor: “I guess that is an even more comprehensive way of looking at ‘extended liability’.”

Implications for celebrity brand endorsements in future

Sanjay Tripathy: “This opens up an entire Pandora’s Box in terms of implications, not just on celebrity brand endorsements but branded communication on the whole. In the end, the celebrity is just a means of communication – a choice the company takes on how they want their message communicated.”

“In these advertisements, all celebrities are still actors, delivering lines. Would this mean that all actors will be held responsible for the lines someone else writes? Maybe creative licence will go out of the window, and from now there will only be monologues of product specifications. Maybe celebrities will stop doing endorsements altogether, and we will be deprived of many memorable advertisements yet to come.”

“Having said that, what will be a very real outcome of this is that there will be much more stringent regulations and monitoring of advertising communication in the future. Celebrities will be harder to convince on brands to endorse and scripts will probably not be as enjoyable as they are now. Whether it will be a good thing, is something only time will tell.”

Ashish Bhasin: “There will be rationality in the market. But I am sure there will be no such action taken. But going forward, the celebrities will be compelled to get involved more deeply before taking the decision to endorse a brand.”

Harish Bijoor: “Celebrities are going to get even more careful in signing up for endorsements in the future. I would, to the marketer, suggest the resurrection of the brand mascot instead of the live brand ambassador. Maybe, brands in the future will get cartoon characters such as Fido Dido and Gattu and Goody the Tiger to endorse their brands.”

Partho Dasgupta: “I don’t think it will go that far and wisdom will prevail.”

Indranil Das Blah: “The celebrities will think a lot of times before endorsing a brand and it will be a difficult situation as all of us know that celebrities are great influencers and hence they are hired.”

Ramesh Chembath: “They will be scared to endorse any brand in the future. More than a brand ambassador or media, it is the government and food testing body that should be held responsible as they are the ones who cleared, tested and checked the product before giving it a license.”

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