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When celebrities sell

A day will come when we will sit down to consume advertisements the same way we consume the creative arts. ACHAL R. PRABHALA finds the prospect terrifying.

PASSING THROUGH the busy lanes of Daryaganj, Delhi, on a blazing hot day this summer, I was arrested by a volley of posters showing Sunil Shetty plugging Lux underwear. They dominated a stretch of the road, placed between the teacarts, bookstalls and assorted low-end consumer goods shops that dot that part of Delhi.

Lux underwear: now that isn't the sort of thing you might see in a smarter part of Delhi, and clearly, the makers of the underwear, and its celebrity endorser, know it well. Celebrity endorsement of underwear, of course, has traditionally been regaled to the musclemen: actors, who it is assumed, might have a large subaltern following, but whose implied stupidity forestalls them from becoming marketing machines for the middle class. Banking services? Get an old, respectable, thinking-man type. Cars? A young, jaunty hero. Cosmetics? Only hysteria-inducing bombshells need apply. And so, it seems, goes the strange tale of advertising, products and endorsement.

"The spectator-buyer is meant to envy herself as what she would become, if she bought the product. She is meant to imagine herself transformed by the product into an object of envy for others, envy which will then justify her loving herself. One could put this another way: the publicity image steals her love of herself as she is, and offers it back to her for the price of the product." Thus spake John Berger, and ever since (or so) it is hard to understand how anyone can imagine that advertising is, as the spin-doctors like to say, about the right to choose.

The film celebrity (who, with the sports celebrity, just about covers the list) is the new mediator of this publicity: if it was just the product that was once stealing your love of yourself, it is now that product and Aishwarya Rai, or Shah Rukh, or Govinda, or Amitabh, or someone else like that.

One often hears of `morals' — the same way one hears of `decency'. Morals are invoked by a reluctance to do `bad' things (cigarettes, alcohol) and the actors who plug them — Akshay Kumar, Sunny Deol, Shatrughan Sinha (in his pre-MP days) and others — considered a little degenerate for doing so, a full one step below (but still closely related to) the underwear set.

Morals and decency then, is about doing things that are fun for the whole family: cars, cosmetics, carbonated drinks and er... financial products. Never mind the beauty culture, the thousands of warped thoughts and aspirations a single lipstick ad can launch. Never mind consumerism at large: that people will be forced, by their new best friend — you, the celebrity endorser — into willing away some large sum of money into the fantasy of pleasing you. Never mind, also, that sometimes, the products you choose to endorse might not even exist, outside the desire of a financial shark's grand plan of defrauding cooperative banks and small investors.

An ad-film maker in Bombay states defensively that he will help sell anything except fairness cream, entirely ignoring the massive damage he may be inflicting on society at large by his active involvement in tobacco industry propaganda. Gopichand Pullela, the badminton star, mildly states that he refused a cola endorsement because he finds fruit juice so much healthier: the news makes the rounds for a while, and is then quickly forgotten as a naive, badly-informed commercial decision.

And speaking of products that don't exist, remember the refrain of a company called Home Trade? Life means more. Presumably then, it meant more to Sachin, Hrithik and Shah Rukh, who enthusiastically plugged its indefinable and entirely mysterious `product'. More than just defrauding the Nagpur Cooperative Bank, more than just cheating millions of small investors out of their lifetime earnings, more than just selling something they neither believed in, nor had any proof even existed.

More? But of course. That's the point, get it? Advertisements are money, and in our imperfect capitalism (with its imperfect information), film stars who endorse things that go bust can quietly get away with it, count their pennies, and never be the worse for having perpetuated fraud.

Hollywood might have its faults, but one of them is not short sightedness. Catch Harrison Ford or Tom Cruise even daring to plug beer in the U.S., the way they do in faraway Japan, where they can be sure no one back home will catch them at it. Even in America's dotcom heyday, it was only retired television actors like William Shatner who ended up trading their onscreen personas (in this case, Captain Kirk, to priceline.com) for a fistful of stock options. It's not magnitude, it's common sense: clearly, there is more money to be made from acting, from keeping intact one's brand identity, one's publicly traded `integrity', than in cashing out early.

So some stars advertise products like Lux underwear, whose consumers, to the average upper middle class city denizen, might as well live in Japan. Govinda does Rupa: Sunny and Bobby Deol, apparently, a whole lot of others. Amitabh does everything. From the once struggling comeback days, he, of the stretched face and gaunt look, is the ubiquitous bearded patriarch, now grandly talking finance, playfully courting cola, or mischievously pitching pens. But Amitabh has always been larger than life. In advertisements, it seems, he (literally) dwarfs the products he is selling. Combined with the strong narrative structures such advertisements tend to have, they tend to be not so much about Pepsi, Parker or ICICI, as only, just about Amitabh. He is the super-product of our times, and to implicate him with such mundane items of daily consumption as blackened sugar water is perhaps — simply — bad advertising.

There's the funny thing: advertisements work in so many different ways, I don't even know anymore when something has affected me, and I seem to have forgotten what it is to resist. Worst of all, I realise advertising might hinge on my resistance to it, and in that case, like Toscani's Benetton images, I've got absolutely nowhere left to go.

Take the folks who diligently churn out visual images of Shah Rukh plugging Pepsi and Hyundai cars. I can believe that someone out there will go out and buy Pepsi because it is suddenly very cool, now that Shah Rukh is drinking it. But a car? Is it conceivable that Mr. Sharma in Delhi sits down one evening to watch his favourite television soap, happens to catch Shah Rukh blow up a building and zip away in his Santro, and then adds `Buy car' to his shopping list for the next day? Naturally, not.

But the folks who sell the car know that. They're working on a much larger principle. A thought-control process that includes words such as `concept', `lifestyle', `equity' and `recall'.

In that sense, a car advertisement itself is working on this principle, with or without Shah Rukh Khan. With the actor, it is shrewdly magnifying its effect. In mapping out the equation Shah Rukh=Santro, it makes the consumer think of the Santro, every time she sees one of the million images of Shah Rukh that pervade her everyday existence. Thus does celebrity inclusion induce the ultimate multiplier effect.

So the question that begs an answer is, do they work? Does Govinda help sell a thousand Rupa banians? Does Preity Zinta launch a thousand requests for Cadbury? The managers of our consumerism say they work, if the celebrity is used consistently with a product, when there is a `fit' between the two, when the commodity is further "fetishised" by the association with the film star.

Certainly, in recent memory, there are instances of this happy confluence of commercial interest and subliminal desire. Lux soap, for one: its gone all awry now, and trying to be everything that other beauty soaps are, but at one point, the association was pretty clear. Fair-skinned actress = Lux beauty soap: Hema Malini's smooth cheeks (that Laloo Yadav recently compared to the roads he intends to build in Bihar) were once intrinsically, irrevocably linked to that innocuous pink bar of glycerine and fatty acids. The question about whether celebrity advertisements work is not so much a question about celebrities, but about the advertisements themselves.

A cynical public is constantly assaulted by the endless flow of the sales pitch: and yet, in those multitudes of messages crowding our thought waves, there is information that manages to get across, there are lifestyle imprints that manage to stick, and products that manage to get sold. The point, therefore, about celebrities in advertisements, is the point of advertising itself: everyone does it, so it isn't up for analysis and examination as much as simply something that is permanently there.

What is fascinating about ad-culture is the narrative structure it adopts, the way in which advertisements have come to be whole spectacles in themselves. Shah Rukh Khan's visibility hinges not so much on the number of films he has recently acted in, as on the number of advertisements he has starred in, and their frequency of deployment. People talk of the new Pepsi ad as if it is the new mega hit from Karan Johar, and watch it with the same curiosity.

To me, this is close to terrifying: to imagine that a day will come when we will sit down to consume advertisements in much the same way as we do the (so-called) creative arts. (Or worse, that we will sit down to consume the creative arts and really be consuming giant commercial advertisements.) To imagine, perhaps, an ad-channel: its by-line, "24/7 Ads...All New, All Day". But none of these is so far away. Neither is the connection between advertising and films anything new. Satyajit Ray worked famously at the company now called Clarion, and Shyam Benegal at Lintas, before making internationally acclaimed creative cinema.

While it is possible, even today, to see media as something that sublimates its audience to living and consuming a constant sales pitch, there seem to be some options. As a consumer, I can probably still choose whether I want to buy activism, integrity, family, religion, youth or the new low-priced Coke in a portable, plastic bottle. I can still maintain a cynicism and retain the faint hope of choice, even if the cynicism may be misdirected at the occasional socially-conscious film star or writer, who is only trying to do some good, by endorsing a cause.

As in-film advertising gains in strength, and film stars continue to endorse commercial products, I quake at the all-too-possible reality of becoming a person who is incapable of thinking anything that Unilever doesn't want me to. Luckily, there are enough other stars, of alternative worlds and alternative theories, which keep this thought control in check. Imagine, otherwise, the title of this article: Film Stars and their Products — Why they are wonderful, Why you should use them, and Why you will buy a cold drink now... Brought to you by Coca-Cola!

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