How Advertising Loopholes Allow Celebs to Endorse Harmful Products
A health hazard, a legal loophole, a celebrity apology.
The spotlight is back on the smoke and mirrors that surround the tobacco industry. On Thursday, Akshay Kumar apologized for appearing in an advertisement for the pan masala brand Vimal; “Zubaan ek ho, toh dil bhi ek hone chahiye,” Kumar is seen telling Ajay Devgn and Shah Rukh Khan while endorsing Vimal Elaichi. The backlash was swift and severe; people criticized the actors for endorsing products that pose a threat to one’s health. While Kumar’s response was to step back from this brand association, Ajay Devgn went on to defend his appearance as a “personal choice.”
This criticism isn’t unique or singular. In 2016, former James Bond actor Pierce Brosnan featured in an ad for another pan masala manufacturer; in 2021, actors Amitabh Bachchan and Ranveer Singh also endorsed a pan masala brand’s “silver-coated cardamom seeds.” The criticism was piercing in both cases; the ads struck a discordant note for health experts and civilians who watched these hefty names endorse tobacco.
There are two questions that press on the social discourse. How are harmful products endorsed to the general public despite it being illegal to do so, and what accountability do celebrities owe while partaking in these brand deals?
The first question pulls focus on the prevalence of a phenomenon known as “surrogate advertising.” Surrogate, meaning “substitute,” is a nifty but notorious way to promote and advertise products of brands — when the original product cannot be advertised legally or due to external regulations. Naturally, a brand advertising an unrelated product also indirectly promotes the tobacco product — brand recall translates into the consumer instantly thinking of the packaging.
Tobacco substances are currently regulated under the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act (COTPA), 2003. Tobacco advertisements are banned under this legislation; the other two layers of restrictions come in the form of Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995 and the Advertising Standards Council of India code.
This is exactly what surrogate advertisements circumvent. Banned products — like chewing tobacco — are not projected directly on TV or newspapers, but rather morphed with another product under the same brand name. Gutkha companies, for instance, sell both gutkha and cardamom. But the advertisement on television is one about the latter. The argument of the companies is these ads should not be associated with actual harmful products, like chewing tobacco. They are widely displayed in events like the Indian Premier League, despite the harm they may end up doing.
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There are traces of foul play here. “Surrogate advertising is not ethically correct,” said Sam Balsara, Chairman of Madison World. “It is advertising for a brand whose advertising is legally not allowed and another brand is created to get around the law and that brand is advertised to keep the brand in the public mind.” Hefty names like Salman Khan, Anushka Sharma, Priyanka Chopra, Tiger Shroff, and Hrithik Roshan have done endorsements for mouth fresheners — manufactured by pan masala brands.
The conversation doesn’t end at calling out corporate misdemeanors. Even celebrities must acknowledge and respond to the role they play in endorsing public health messages. Amitabh Bachchan said he was not aware when the ad was being filmed that it fell under surrogate advertising. Or Brosnan also claimed that the company “cheated him” by not disclosing how harmful the products were. Even now, Kumar asserts he has never endorsed anything harmful and never will.
According to the ASCI regulations, celebrities should not feature in advertisements for a product that would legally require a health warning in the packaging or the ad. So someone can’t legally endorse pan masala because it contains ingredients like betel nut, a known carcinogen that is addictive. Then, ads for cardamom seeds become surrogates.
The regulations notwithstanding, the moral responsibility has been pointed out time and again; the power of these endorsements, when done by a glamorous star, is unquantifiable.
No wonder health experts, in response to the current controversy, think Kumar’s apology does little to undo the damage. “The ad will continue. The damage that the ad will do in terms of influencing people, his fans and followers and everybody else, is done. The business of selling tobacco, gutkha and pan masala and cancer-causing substances will flourish. So how does this apology help?” said Bhavna Mukhopadhyaya, chief executive officer of the Voluntary Health Association of India.
The law governing tobacco sales is almost two decades old; experts point out the need for amending the law to respond to the faster pace of violations that happen both online and offline. “COTPA definitely needs amendment to be able to address social media streaming platforms so that all kind of advertising is banned across all channels,” Monika Arora, director, health promotion division, Public Health Foundation of India, told Down To Earth.
A clause, that explicitly outlaws surrogate advertising for a brand name that sells tobacco, is an imperative need. The frequency and scale with which the ruse continues otherwise make the deception the ultimate standard.