Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachchan recently told an IIM student how he stopped endorsing Pepsi. It was a heartwarming anecdote about a little girl in Jaipur who asked him why he promoted a drink her teacher called poison. Mr Bachchan, apparently felt a sudden twinge of guilt for associating with a product known to make kids unhealthy and obese and quietly dropped it. It’s been a while since cold, bubbly and divinely satisfying aerated drinks became products non grata at children’s birthday parties and school canteens, but now they seem to be fast whizzing into a category just beneath tobacco and alcohol. Experts in the wellness space predict that in the future, drinks and convenience foods will carry warnings similar to the ones on cigarette packets, probably something like ‘Sugar causes heart disease and diabetes’.
International stars right from Madonna to Elton John, and more recently One Direction, have all endorsed Pepsi or Coke. Way before the alleged pesticides-in-cola controversy broke in India, badminton ace Pullela Gopichand spurned an offer to endorse a fizzy drink because he believed they weren’t good for health. His far richer, much more sought after contemporaries like Sachin Tendulkar and Shah Rukh Khan continued to trade in their star aura for the same products. The gap between conviction and plausible justification can be both a narrow and wide one: I imagine it would be hard to maintain a puritanical attitude when there are several crores at stake, especially when conscience can so easily be assuaged with some imagination. After all, an occasional cola never actually killed anybody. A valid argument is that the blame should rest with those people who can’t exercise self control, not the celebrity promoting the drink. And ethically speaking, what really is the difference in endorsing a soft drink, as opposed to a clothing brand where sweatshop workers are paid Rs 14 for a garment that retails for Rs 1, 500? Or even artery clogging potato chips and chocolates like Dairy Milk that incidentally, Mr Bachchan also used to endorse.
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That said, it can only be a good thing if celebrities are questioning their endorsement choices and attempting to make informed decisions. However, taking a strong stand of de-endorsement based on a moral quandary can be tricky. Indian stars remain hopelessly conventional when it comes to choosing products to model for. Appearing in an ad for biscuits or Kurkure is fine, but condoms are not. You’ll never find a top female actor or model posing for a lingerie campaign no matter how much money is on offer, while in the West being chosen as a Victoria’s Secret Angel is a matter of pride and accomplishment. In the West, stars are held to far higher standards and scrutinized much more and a bad choice can seriously damage your brand image. A couple of years ago, after it created a furore, singers Nelly Furtado, Beyonce and Usher all said they would give away money they received for performing at ex-Libyan dictator Gaddafi’s event. I doubt if the Indian public would boycott Salman Khan or Ranveer Singh’s films for dancing at a party while victims of riot shivered in tents nearby.
Modern living is reckless and everything we do can be deemed wrong by sermonizing critics. Food alone is such an issue, how far it’s travelled, tinned or fresh, free range or organic, non vegetarian or not. Morality thankfully, is constantly evolving. Smoking is now seen as immoral,while divorce and homosexuality, notwithstanding our Hon’ble Supreme Court’s verdict on Section 377, are not. It can go to ridiculous limits. These days you are decidedly backward if you give a little girl a doll to play with and have the temerity to dress her in shiny pink. Gender neutral toys are what’s appropriate, or rather what’s in fashion. It’s totally missing the point that it’s the culture, and not the colour of moulded plastic that shapes identity.