Thursday, February 26, 2009

Celeb Brand Ambassadors? Not Again….. Puhleeeeeze!

4Ps B&M's Monojit Lahiri examines the validity and effectiveness of the glam, celeb brigade, doing their number as BA in the critical Social Sector space. Are they effective?

“Behen Lagta Kya?”
“Nahin, Mehman Lagta …”

Dialogues from the latest pot-boiler coming out of tinsel town? Naah, lines from a new TVC scripted by Prasoon Joshi, directed by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra and – most importantly – delivered [with trademarks, mannerisms and punch] by Bollywood’s Little Big Man, Aamir Khan! For guys who came in late, no, Aamir hasn’t switched lanes but playing out his new role as brand ambassador for Incredible India’s Atithi Devo Bhavah [Guest is God] campaign. In recent times – and especially post-TZP – the thinking star has been popularly perceived as a caring, sensitive, responsible and socially aware individual who, with his iconic presence can make a difference in altering beliefs, attitudes and mindset relating to causes and concerns, in the public domain. Be that as it may, do celeb brand ambassadors, [as a rule] help further the cause they push? Are they really effective, credible and represent the mission played out … or is it [like the corny and frivolous celeb endorsement circus] more TRP-driven, more entertaining than purposeful? In short, when celebs support causes – who benefits?

Lets for a moment, look westwards. How about starting with the hottest of the hot, Angelina Jolie! Forever inspiring stories like ‘Brangelina Fever Grips London’ or ‘Why Armed Guards Stormed Their Bedroom’, Jolie has been a Goodwill Ambassador with the United Nations for ages. She always pays her way and her work with the refugee commission is simply amazing. On international issues, she is said to have more clout than many UN diplomats! “I see Angelina as the perfect humanitarian advocate. She brings an immense amount of international focus, but she never seeks to use it for her own benefit. On the contrary she transfers the spotlight directly to civic society advocates and makes them more powerful, effective and result-driven”. That was Gavin Simpson, a key member of the activist group – Witness, who worked closely with Jolie during her visit to the West African country, Sierra Leone. Other notables from Hollywood include Audrey Hepburn [UN] Danny Kaye [UNICEF] Humphrey Bogart, Bono, Sean Penn and a host of others.
What about the celebrity activism, vis-à-vis brand ambassador scene in India? Well, there’s the famous Big B for Polio, Koena Mitra for children’s orphanages, Shilpa Shetty for animal rights, Preity Zinta, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, along with a host of others... Point is – are they credible? Film-maker Muzaffar Ali believes it all really depends on the “sensibilities connect.” If that synergy is missing, it is at best, tokenism; at work, mockery. He cites the case of Big B’s stint as BA of Uttar Pradesh. Did it work? “Here was a superstar, living and working out of Mumbai, suddenly waxing poetic about UP. How on earth could it ever strike target?” Regarding Aamir, there is credibility, (he believes), due to the image and sensibilities connect. “The man, his persona and the cause he is espousing fuse. Conviction and track record is the key. No star or celeb can act out this role. They can’t fake it.”

Film-maker Rituparno Ghosh agrees. “For example I can’t think of a better BA for promoting the Hindi language than the Big B. The fit is perfect. Yes, the profiles have to jell.”

Future Group’s CEO Santosh Desai looks at it differently. “Let’s not get cute, coy and pretend. Most social sector advertising is largely cosmetic and tokenism and there is no real, focused effort to make a change.” Desai then goes on to really slam the current Aamir Khan TVC doing the circuit. “I think it is a terrible ad, with this didactic lecture… it’s really and truly an embarrassingly bad ad! I am surprised because Aamir normally doesn’t do corny ads, stuff where hectoring and heavy-duty messaging is on the cards.” Desai then goes on to explain what he believes is the ‘politics’ behind Public Service Advertising. “There is this popular belief that since it is an important cause, important people must say something about it, denounce it or at least play some role in it. They fall back on the tired cliché of ‘when celebs talk, people listen’. They may listen but do they hear, react and act as told to?” The other problem, Desai says, relates to the fact that these biggies are doing it for ‘free’. In short, the aura, hungama, myth and buzz around it frequently overtake the action, totally defeating the purpose.

At the end of the day, one thing is clear: Celebrities – unquestionably – open doors and to deny their clout in the popular culture space is to be dumb, myopic, cynical or plain, in-denial mode. They definitely bring a very special buzz to the cause they espouse and if they are the right person – respected, committed, informed and involved – they have no substitute. Incidentally (if you observed) the operative words are ‘if’ and ‘right’!! 


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