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Two incidents in the past seven days have drawn attention to the business of celebrity endorsements. First, actor Shah Rukh Khan, who endorses at least a dozen brands, came under fire after his son Aryan was arrested by the Narcotics Control Bureau in a drug probe. News reports said edtech firm Byju’s, which uses Khan as brand ambassador, suspended its ad campaign featuring the star, although it was spotted on Star Sports 1 HD during IPL on Wednesday. On Monday, Amitabh Bachchan announced stepping away from his deal with pan masala brand Kamla Pasand, claiming he wasn’t aware the silver-coated elaichi being promoted was a surrogate ad.

Both the stars were being trolled on digital platforms, turning the spotlight on the precarious nature of the endorsement business. Social media complicates it all, said brand strategy expert Harish Bijoor, who runs Harish Bijoor Consults Inc. One finds three kinds of people on social media—the real consumer, the competitor’s trolls and the madman with nothing else to do but deride and chide, Bijoor said. “In this environment, every action and inaction of the brand endorser is watched and used," he added.

Brand experts like him and Samit Sinha, managing partner, Alchemist Brand Consulting, are no fan of celebrity endorsements. Bijoor said it is “the lowest common denominator approach" and Sinha recommends it as the “last resort".

This is not to suggest that celebrities do not benefit brands, but one must be mindful that quite often the risks outweigh the rewards, especially in today’s digital age of intense and constant scrutiny that celebrities are subjected to. “Especially, as the boundaries between their public and private lives have blurred," Sinha said.

Brand ambassadors worked beautifully when endorsement was rare and there was still respect left for the word of the endorser, said Bijoor. Today, consumers view a brand ambassador as a paid entity doing his or her job. “The trust quotient in endorsements is lower. Add to that the brand ambassador’s fallibility or mishaps, and we have an environment of distrust, where trust must reside," Bijoor added.

Yet, there are advantages for brands to associate with celebrities. The fact remains the trend is not on the wane. Onboarding celebrities provide brands instant recognition, noticeability and even stature. The risks, however, are less predictable.

Even watertight contracts do not insulate brands from the fallout of celebrities getting caught in damaging controversies. However, in the case of Bachchan and Kamla Pasand, the opposite was true. “It was a classic case of a brand ambassador distancing himself from a category that could get rocky," said Bjioor.

Indian law does not permit tobacco or alcohol advertising. Guidelines framed by the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) also state that celebrities should not participate in advertisements of products, which by law require a health warning in their ads or packaging.

Clearly, the veteran actor walked out of the Kamla Pasand deal as the loss in terms of his image—owing to the nature of the product and getting roasted on social media—was greater than the gain in terms of money.

The strategy to hire brand ambassadors should be thought through as the popularity of a celebrity is also transient. “Very few enjoy a constant level of celebrity status over years, let alone decades. Brands, on the other hand, should be built to last," said Sinha.

Sometimes, there’s the risk of the celebrity persona overshadowing the brand to the extent where consumers can recall the celebrity and the ad but not the brand itself, he added.

Despite the very real risks, brands continue to engage celebrities. While it may pay off, it does exclude the possibility of coming up with alternative concepts that could potentially be more effective and probably a lot cheaper and safer.

Sinha finds taking the celebrity endorsement route without first exploring other possibilities as a sign of intellectual laziness and, perhaps, even creative bankruptcy. “I believe that a celebrity is not a substitute for a brand or a communication idea, except in some rare cases, for example, Unilever’s Lux, which was positioned as The Beauty Soap Of The Film Stars," he said.

Sinha couldn’t agree more with American advertising icon Bill Bernbach, when he reportedly said: “We don’t have a lot of money. That’s why we have to think."

Shuchi Bansal is Mint’s media, marketing and advertising editor. Ordinary Post will look at pre-ssing issues related to all three. Or just fun stuff.

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