The Big Picture – Maggi Controversy: Liability of Star Endorsers
The controversy over Maggi Noddles, being unfit for consumption due to excessive lead and monosodium glutamate content, is refusing to dry down. With few states completely banning and others having sent it for testing, the controversy persists. Meanwhile, a court in Bihar has order that a case be registered against all those celebrities who had endorsed the product in the last several years. This has brought into the debate the role of celebrities endorsing the product. According to a study, 50% of advertisements in India are celebrity endorsements which also is an indicator of the high level of involvement of celebrities in selling products not to talk of huge price they attract to endorse the product.
According to the Food Standards and Safety Authority of India (FSSAI) Act, anyone who is a party to a misleading advertisement or its publication can be fined up to Rs 10 lakh. The proposed amendments to the Consumer Protection Act also has provisions to issue direction for discontinuation of such advertisements and even reporting such violations to police or any other law enforcing agency for criminal prosecution. Section-53 of the Act says that any person who publishes, or is a party to the publication of an advertisement that falsely describes any food or is likely to mislead as to the nature or substance or quality of any food or gives false guarantee, shall be liable to a penalty. This fine can extend up to Rs 10 lakh. It is the responsibility of the endorser to be sure that the particular product has the nutrient value that he/ she is advertising. The act also says that even an accurate mention of the composition of a food item either on the label or advertisement won’t be a defence against misleading advertisement if the ingredients found exceed the permissible limits. It also has provisions for fines up to Rs 1 lakh on anyone who sells, stores, distributes or imports food containing extraneous matter.
Endorsements are a lucrative line of income for celebrities, given how nearly every second brand uses a famous face to induce people to buy it. According to a study, the celebrity endorsement business was worth around Rs 1,000 crore in 2010.
But those who are in support of these celebrities say, “The primary responsibility to test these products lies with the FDA, who have still not been able to figure out what is wrong. Then how do you expect the stars to do it.” They further say that it is neither the responsibility of the celebrity nor in the purview of the celebrity to get involved in the specifics or the quality of the product. That is the job of the company. It is also being said that criminal liability for fraud is grossly excessive because every star actor or cricketer isn’t prone to mendacity. Celebrity managers say if these stars are found liable, the contours of endorsement contracts are likely to change, bringing in more due diligence as well as clauses to protect celebrities. According to some, the company and government officials who allowed those products to be sold are more liable than the celebrities, who merely lend their names to these products.
The practice in US is such that the celebrity must have used the product and employed all reasonable means to ascertain that the advertiser’s claims were not false or explicitly misleading. While doing so, they were to be reasonably sceptical of the manufacturers’ claims, but were not required to don the mantle of forensic chemical examiners.
Hence, the entire system of self-regulation by manufacturers and external regulation by government needs an overhaul. While it remains to be seen what legal turn the controversy takes, advertising agencies and celebrities are expected to become more careful, putting in more effort in due diligence on the safety of the products they endorse.