Misleading Endorsements – Where Does The Blame Lie?

The recent controversy regarding celebrity endorsers being penalized for misleading endorsement has brought to light an old debate. Is spurious brand endorsement merely the responsibility of an endorser? What is the brand's obligation in making a claim? If something goes wrong, where and how does the blame get assigned? All combined, the debate about changes to the Consumer Protection Bill surrounding the penalization of celebrity brand endorsers with misleading claims ought to be conducted on an open platform. There are several layers to the debate and these must be considered carefully before the panel’s recommendations are put into effect.

At present, the debate revolves around the suggestions of a parliamentary standing committee on food, consumer affairs, and public distribution, which recommends celebrities be held accountable for the brands they endorse. If the parliamentary panel’s recommendations are accepted, a celebrity endorsing a brand that has a misleading advertisement can be fined up to INR 50 lakh or a jail term of up to five years. It can be argued that owing to their celebrity status, any brand endorsed by celebrities is automatically found attractive by the masses. However, is a celebrity status enough to be incriminated? Shouldn’t both the promoter and endorser be held accountable?

The argument that consumers blindly believe endorsements by celebrities, though not entirely flawed, has a few drawbacks. Firstly, a celebrity endorser is at the end of the day an actor, and her/his role in the endorsement also involves putting up an act. Celebrity endorsement often is crucial in terms of reaching a large number of people, but does the endorsement by a celebrity prove critical for the audience to accept the brand? Influencing audiences to use a brand may have a correlation with celebrity endorsement, but establishing a causal relation between the two seems doubtful. In fact, every advertisement that is aired is one that involves paid actors acting out a concept approved by the promoters of the brand. Where, then, can we draw the line between acting and real endorsement? It becomes imperative, therefore, for the government of India along with the relevant bodies to formulate proper guidelines enlisting the boundaries of spurious endorsement.

Furthermore, it is essential to build a formal protocol to check the authenticity of consumer complaints as well as one to calculate the extent of the monetary damage inflicted by misleading endorsement before incriminating celebrity endorsers. This will be another essential step towards demystifying the discussion around misleading celebrity endorsement. Once again, the onus falls back on developing and having stricter guidelines in place that ensures an objective assessment of the concerned parties.

Misleading brand endorsement is a conversation that has been going around for a while. However, what this controversy needs is not more attention from media but from the legal community of the country. There is a dire need for creating a concise legal framework that neatly outlines the terms and conditions of endorsement; there is also a need to define the contours of spurious or misleading endorsement. Laws are essential to help outline the extent of responsibility on the side of the endorser and the promoter respectively. Without such a framework, things will stay murky in the world of advertisement and celebrity endorsement.