Rules Of Engagement

Outrage over the new commercial for Havells fans throws up larger questions about the use of celebrities in advertising

For many viewers, the Havells fan ad with Rajesh Khanna struck a sour note {{name}}
01 June, 2012

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.

Directed by R Balki, an ad filmmaker who is better known for his movies Cheeni Kum and Pa, the ad plays on the obsessive fandom around Bollywood’s first superstar, Rajesh Khanna, to highlight the longevity of the fans produced by Havells, a fast growing electrical equipment brand. I recall a piece I read in the mid-1970s in an issue of Stardust stacked on my mother’s bedside reading shelf headlined ‘The day Rajesh Khanna contemplated committing suicide’. Khanna was so famous then that he felt there was nothing more for him to live for. The piece was inspired, I think, by the apocryphal story of sculptor Auguste Rodin crying upon completing his famous work, ‘The Thinker’. Rodin had achieved perfection. What is there beyond perfection, except death? The Havells ad brings back the iconic Rajesh Khanna and presents him, emaciated and shrivelled by circumstances and disease, entering a hall with a thousand Havells fans whirring before him in resounding unison. The ad ends with Khanna saying, “Mere fans mujhse koi nahin cheen sakta (Nobody can snatch my fans from me),” and tipping his head to one side in his signature mannerism. Anyone who was paying any attention to Khanna realises where the message is coming from, but are too embarrassed to even think of connecting the once heartthrob with the tragic caricature created by the ad. Beyond a point, no ad can work by pushing the line of creative imagination. Stretching any idea beyond its elastic limit yields diminishing returns.

The ad campaign by the insurance firm Birla SunLife featuring Yuvraj Singh has been at the centre of another Internet storm ever since Singh was diagnosed with cancer in February. Filmed just after India’s World Cup victory last April, where Singh was judged Man of the Tournament, the ad features Singh talking about the uncertainties of life, and how the going is good as long as the bat swings well. He asks the important question: what if something goes wrong, like health? What then? The ad worked well as long as Singh was an on-field icon. The message was real and relevant, with the right dose of speculation. But with the news of Singh’s cancer going public this February, the ad crossed a line between imaginative storyboarding and harsh reality. Many commentators have taken umbrage at the poor taste that marks the continued airing of the ad. Some have argued that, since the ad predates his illness, it’s fair enough to let it go on. In my opinion, the ad ought to have been pulled out. You can hard sell fame, but you can’t hard sell adversity. Yuvraj Singh the celebrity is meat for public consumption, but Yuvraj Singh the cancer patient is not. Advertisements spin webs through desire and illusion. When the delicate thread between what might have been and what is is broken, we cringe.

A safe rule for celebrity endorsement is to find a synthesis between a core attribute of the celebrity and the core idea of the message. Hema Malini’s long-term endorsement of Kent water purifiers is a good example. She was the metonym for beauty in the India of the 1970s. She managed a difficult relationship with the actor Dharmendra, who was married with two children, and yet retained her dignity through it. She brought up two lovely daughters, made it to Parliament, and remained a top Bharatnatyam dancer throughout her career. In short, she epitomises wholesomeness. It is her core attribute. Since Kent emphasises purity in the water that comes out of its filter, her association with the product is spot on.

Aamir Khan’s career in endorsement can be seen as a handy lesson for both ad-makers and celebrities. He delivers great performances and, like with his movies, remains very selective. There is warmth in everything Khan does on screen, and one can feel it in his ads. The Coke campaign from a few years ago (especially the one on ‘chota Coke for five rupees’) was a winning proposition for both him and the brand. Unlike Pepsi, which seeks to empathise with the quirkiness of youth, Coke addresses an older, more rooted generation. Since street-side banter, muffasil humour and earthy characters are part of Khan’s on-screen charm, Coke and him are a perfect fit.

The right celebrity can immortalise a brand, and the impact often directly correlates to the power of the personality. Sachin Tendulkar is a big name, and can carry products through his sheer popularity, but he never was, nor will ever be, the face of great advertising. He is sober, humble and real—very un-celebrity like. He can try and Boost your energy, urge you to think of no other tyres but MRF, or to trust no insurance company beyond Aviva. But you just sit before the TV, liking the guy, appreciating everything he represents, and yet forgetting every recommendation he makes. Sachin has ‘big brand’ written all over him, and yet he is not a hardcore endorser, like, say, fellow sports icon David Beckham, who can sell just about anything, including Armani underwear (in an ad that has no text except the brand name emblazoned across the elastic strap).

Ads address human subjectivity, and, therefore, can’t escape the vicissitudes of an audience’s taste. Some ads ring true to the heart, others do not. But the fundamentals remain constant over time. The character and strength of the celebrity and the product (which is the inherent value of the proposition—like in the Incredible India ads by Aamir Khan, where each one of us was an interested party), the aesthetic quality and, of course, the cultural sensitivities of the audience are primary factors in determining the viability of an endorsement.

Advertising seeks to stir our primal desires, attempting to overcome the barrier of conditioning that forces us to moderate our choices. Despite the ubiquity of mass media, and the lure of the hyper-real in a visually mesmerising world, the human mind is, ultimately, unpredictable. Because, despite all the pressures, and in ways strange and often unfathomable, it has, as Neo points out in the Matrix, ‘choice’.