Shreyas Kulkarni

Hrithik Roshan bats for WhiteHat Jr... What will this do to the brand's image?

WhiteHat Jr has undergone a trial by fire on social media in recent times. Will Bollywood actor Hrithik Roshan as its face extinguish or fuel the fire?

No other brand has evoked as many emotions as Byju’s-owned WhiteHat Jr, an edtech platform which teaches coding to kids, has. From its ads to social media communication to marketing strategies, WhiteHat Jr has been under scrutiny from all sides in the past few months.

This time, it is the platform’s latest ad featuring Bollywood actor Hrithik Roshan that caught our eye. While we tried our best to find the ad online, there was no trace of it. We assume the ad was meant only for television viewership.

In it, Roshan worries about the usefulness of the skills kids (most probably referring to his two young sons) are learning today, for the future. We are then told how coding is an essential skill for the future, and how WhiteHat Jr is an excellent platform for kids to learn coding on… A basic ad.

It is interesting to note that it was only in October (2020) that the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), "a self-regulatory voluntary organization of the advertising industry", asked WhiteHat Jr to pull down its ads. ASCI had processed 15 complaints against seven WhiteHat Jr ads. Five of these ads were in potential violation of the ASCI code… WhiteHat Jr withdrew them immediately.

Pradeep Menon
Pradeep Menon

“… was the ad which suggested the kid could become an entrepreneur that kicked off the controversy,” says Pradeep Menon, co-founder and head, branding and strategy, Blackswan (India) Ideations.

Menon is referring to the ad in which black suits (insinuated as investors) battled each other for the opportunity to invest in an app designed by a six-year-old who learnt coding from WhiteHat Jr.

People complained about the ad on social media. They claimed it invoked a sense of FOMO (fear of missing out) to push parents to avail the service. Several users, who did not have kids, complained that they received messages about the platform’s services.

Celebrity endorsers

Roshan isn’t the first celebrity to star in a WhiteHat Jr ad. The brand, in the past, has featured paralympian Deepa Malik, cricketer Shikhar Dhawan, choreographer and director Farah Khan, and actors Sonu Sood and Madhuri Dixit in its ads.

L Suresh
L Suresh

“Hrithik is most likely to have been chosen because of his ’Super 30’ movie. So the do-gooder, the teacher and mentor personality is being harnessed from his portrayal of Anand Kumar,” says creative consultant L Suresh after we explained what happens in the ad.

The CCPA conundrum

In August 2020, the Consumer Protection Act 2019 came into effect and under it, the Central Consumer Protection Authority (CCPA) was created. Under CCPA, an ‘endorser’ can face a fine of Rs 10 lakh and a jail term for two years for being part of misleading ads. In case of a subsequent offence, the fine may increase to Rs 50 lakh and the jail term to five years.

This point is important to note because WhiteHat Jr and its founder Karan Bajaj filed a Rs 20 crore defamation case in the Delhi High Court against YouTuber Pradeep Poonia, who levelled allegations of malpractice and misleading ads against the brand.

“More and more people are going to face problems now because they do not know about this new law, which includes big celebrity endorsers, and there should be more awareness about this law,” says Menon. He cited an instance where Mammootty, a legendary Malayalam actor, was called to court because a customer alleged the fairness cream the actor endorsed wasn’t effective. Subsequently, the brand took down the ad.

“Endorsers should know the difference between an ad, where you are selling a business, and a movie, where you are showcasing creativity,” stressed Menon.

He feels that stars can no longer get away with, “I didn’t know about the product, I was doing an advertisement.”

But Suresh took a different route when he told us that the actor’s (Roshan’s) team must have done due diligence and made him aware of the new rules as well as the ongoing legal hassles of WhiteHat Jr.

He referenced Home Trade, a financial services portal that claimed to deal in government securities (as a strong reason for the due diligence).It brought together Roshan, Sachin Tendulkar and Shah Rukh Khan for an ad blitz, but there was no securities to offer and it turned out to be a scam. It went under, owing a lot of money to the stars.

The LinkedIn post

WhiteHat Jr’s Bajaj wrote a post on LinkedIn last week, where he spoke about the court case. What, however, caught our eye were the lines, “We’ve made mistakes while growing up. Our marketing campaigns were poorly designed, which we changed.”

Suresh believes that Karan Gupta, in his post, is referring to some of the early communication from the brand, in which it used the faces of tech giants Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Sundar Pichai to push its offering, and perhaps even to the ‘Wolf Gupta’ posts. It is a series of posts where the brand claimed that ‘Wolf Gupta’ (an imaginary child) had won a crore-plus salary at Google because he decided to learn to code.

“These are probably the points Karan Bajaj is talking about as mistakes… and there is a chance that in the process of reinventing their personality, they’ve brought in Roshan,” says Suresh, while Menon remarks, “Every product is selling something, but the way of storytelling is what makes it different. Here they are pushing a lot.”

We will have to wait and see if Roshan’s face can extinguish or fuel the fire.

Cover photo courtesy: @DigitalTechArch on Twitter

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