Questioning star power

How do celebrity-endorsed public causes help?

July 25, 2018 12:15 am | Updated October 13, 2018 09:23 am IST

Actor Amitabh Bachchan.

Actor Amitabh Bachchan.

When a celebrity becomes the official endorser of Binani Cement, Nestle’s Maggi, Kalyan Jewellers and Navratna Tel (hair oil), it is inevitable that everybody wants a piece of him. As a public figure who has enthusiastically embraced sundry brands, superstar Amitabh Bachchan must be aware of the price associated with using his name.

Three years ago, the actor was approached by Doordarshan’s Kisan TV, which seemed to briefly forget that it was a public service broadcaster. Officials wanted Bachchan to endorse the channel, for which a contractual agreement was drawn up. When eyebrows were raised over the decision to squander public money on a non- kisan , Bachchan stepped in to clarify that he was endorsing the channel for free, to improve farmers’ welfare.

A similar saga played out recently, resulting in a controversy involving the brand of health drink, Horlicks. Seeking to associate itself with a media house and promote the goal of ridding the country of malnutrition, this GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) brand had decided to take up Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Poshan Abhiyaan. However, nutrition advocacy groups saw red and demanded that Bachchan withdraw his association with Horlicks. A clarification followed, which said that while Bachchan was committed to removing malnutrition and working towards the cause on pro bono basis, he was not making any such public commitment regarding Horlicks. Similarly, GSK clarified that it was only aiming to address the micronutrient deficiency in children. Given that India’s nutrition indicators are dismal, a mission to address this cause is laudable. It is another matter that countless nutrition missions have been launched by past governments, despite which the figures remain embarrassing. About 38% of children are stunted, 35.7% are underweight, and 21% of children under the age of five are wasted, according to National Family Health Survey-4 data.

This brings us to the broader question of celebrity-endorsed public causes. When Bollywood stars sweep streets to show their commitment to Swachh Bharat, they must remind themselves that this is a chore and not a photo-op for millions. They must also remind themselves that safai karamcharis do this all year for a pittance, sans the cameras.

When Bachchan associated himself with the Poshan mission and took to social media to show his commitment, the questions that should have been asked by the campaign managers are: How will malnutrition be addressed by the star’s association? Will it bring hot cooked food to the plates of malnourished mothers and their wards? Will his name address the well-entrenched patriarchy in families that denies food to the girl child and insists that women eat long after men finish?

The writer is an Associate Editor at The Hindu in New Delhi

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