SOCIAL NETWORKING SITES ARE UNRELENTING. Marketing professionals of the past could not have dreamt of the type of real-time response that today’s events and opinions evoke. Canny advertisers know the online tricks, and are often happy to see a cyber buzz accumulate around their creative efforts. The ad may not make it to Cannes Lions, but if it’s a hit on YouTube, its value is realised. Two recent ads, one featuring actor Rajesh Khanna (Havells) and the other, cricketer Yuvraj Singh (Birla Sun Life Insurance), have led to a furore on the web (The Havells ad was a trending topic on twitter for days after its release on 30 April). An overwhelming majority of respondents found both of them unpleasant. It’s not that either ad is poorly produced. Both hang their laurels on celebrity endorsement. And yet, they don’t quite work—a fact that should make us look again at the nature of celebrity advertising, our relationship to celebrity, and the ever-important subject of audience sensibility.
Before we get to the shortcomings of the ads in question, let’s poke around a few concepts that bear on the construct of celebrity endorsement. In a media-saturated world, our choices and opinions are, to a large extent, determined by our exposure to media products. Media dependency, first theorised in 1976 by US researchers Sandra Ball-Rokeach and Melvin DeFleur, has created a direct relationship between the continual flow of ideas and suggestions from media systems and the topography of our thoughts. Advertisements, therefore, are more than just flags raised to draw our attention. They have been woven into the very fabric of our thoughts and cultural practices. Celebrities dominate this new media space. The modern marketplace privileges a culture of excellence and functions on the assumption that celebrities define and embody the highest that can be achieved in their line of work, be it walking the ramp, swishing a cricket bat, or dancing around trees.
A limited mediascape and the absence of a market economy pre-liberalisation meant that Indian celebrities of yore were not intrepid endorsers, unlike, say, today’s Shah Rukh Khan or Amitabh Bachhan. Besides, in the conservative, middle-class urban India of the past, dominated by the slow rhythms of sarkari culture, fame earned through talent on stage or on screen was viewed as exhibitionist (numiashi, if you like), not respectable enough to mould mainstream opinion. It is only in the past two decades that fame, even for two minutes, has become a central preoccupation of Indian society. The proliferation of reality shows are a telling index. Attaining fame is seen today as the ultimate stage of being. Celebrities, who regularly top national popularity charts, tap into desires framed in larger-than-life billboards and 16:9 television sets. But what makes also breaks. The frenetic pace of this new world makes fame ephemeral; in the world of short attention spans, the spell cast by celebrity is iffy. Today’s fans are legion, but they are also fickle; they are fanatical, but also picky. The Havells ad argues against this hypothesis, and suffers for it.