Indian movie icon Amitabh Bachchan, a one-time “brand ambassador” for Pepsi Cola after gaining fame as the “angry young man” of Bollywood in the 1970s, is in the headlines in the subcontinent for revealing that he will no longer endorse the soft drink after a schoolgirl in Jaipur asked him why he was promoting a drink that her teacher maintained was “poisonous.”
“When you say to drink Pepsi, I feel you are doing something wrong,” the actor recalled the girl saying. “I just felt if this is an impression that we create in the mind of a possible buyer, I must not be doing it. And I stopped endorsing Pepsi.”
Bachchan was associated with Pepsi for eight years beginning in 2002, and has endorsed many brands in the past. His current roster includes Maggi, Kalyan Jewellers, Parle Goldstar Cookies, Binani Cement and Gujarat Tourism.
Bachchan revealed the anecdote in a talk to students last week at the Indian Institute of Management. “Bachchan told the audience that he has been very careful in choosing his endorsements ever since,” Aditi Shome-Ray reports on dnaindia.com.
“I look into it... I meet the client and ask them about it... I don’t endorse tobacco or alcohol because I don’t have them... then why should I endorse them?” he told the students.
“The actor went on to add, ‘I tell this to my son Abhishek and to daughter-in-law Aishwarya also...if you have to endorse a product then you have to conduct your life in such a manner that it does not affect others' lives,” Shome-Ray writes.
In The Economic Times piece by Vishal Dutta and Ratna Bhushan that broke the story Friday, brand consultant Harish Bijoor says Bachchan should “be more careful before airing such views.”
“After endorsing a brand for so many years, he cannot deendorse it. Any brand endorsement deal by a celebrity is an informed choice. They cannot be repenting it at a later stage,” Bijoor told Dutta and Bhushan.
“The comments drew wide attention both in mainstream and social media, causing a storm within India’s advertising community,” Amy Kazmin reports in The Financial Times.
“It’s definitely embarrassing,” Dheeraj Sinha, chief strategy officer in south and southeast Asia for Grey Advertising, tells Kazmin. “It’s not easy building a brand, and the last thing you want is your wife going out and criticizing you in public.”
Pepsi’s agency in India is J. Walter Thompson, one of the few global markets where it is not aligned with Omnicom’s BBDO, as Economic Times’ Ratna Bhushan pointed out in a profile of Pepsi’s marketing VP Deepika Warrier last month.
Pepsi’s reaction to the furor, in an email to the Financial Times, was muted: “Amitabh Bachchan is a living legend and it is only natural for employees of any organization to look up to the brand ambassadors. Pepsi is loved by millions of Indian consumers.”
In The Financial Express, Leher Kala observes, “it can only be a good thing if celebrities are questioning their endorsement choices and attempting to make informed decisions” while delving into the similarities and differences of India’s endorsement culture with the West’s. For example, “You’ll never find a top female actor or model posing for a lingerie campaign no matter how much money is on offer,” Kala says, “while in the West being chosen as a Victoria’s Secret Angel is a matter of pride and accomplishment.”
But apparently former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s anti-soda campaign would find a receptive audience in India.
“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,” Kala writes.
In Business Standard, Alokananda Chakraborty makes a point that’s made every time a celebrity endorser embarrasses a brand in some way: Perhaps it’s best to not tie your fortunes to fickle and foible-prone human beings. Chakraborty makes the business case for “getting rid of the star ambassadors altogether”:
That may be why Pepsi marketing VP Warrier pines for the good old days of the cola wars, which also were fought in India before news broke a decade ago that farmers were using Coke and Pepsi as cheap alternatives to pesticides.