Shreyas Kulkarni

Will Bollywood’s present woes affect celebrity brand endorsements?

Consistent box office disappointments coupled with daily boycott calls do not bode well for actors’ brand deals.

A video of writer Kurt Vonnegut mapping popular storylines along a graph succinctly describes Bollywood’s present-day state.

The tale of Cinderella is one of the storylines he plots on the graph. The line graph sees a staircase-like rise when Cinderella’s fairy godmother arranges for her to attend the ball. Unfortunately, there’s a sharp plummet when she has to return home from the ball at midnight. There is, once again, a rise when the prince finds her.

Bollywood is Cinderella and it is midnight.

The Hindi film industry has suffered one of its worst years in 2022 where barring The Kashmir Files, Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2, and Gangubai Kathiawadi, most if not all movies have disappointed at the Box Office. Couple this miserable run with a growing culture of boycott calls on the world of Bollywood and its inhabitants which one can no longer ascribe as fringe or irrelevant.

Laal Singh Chaddha, a remake of Forrest Gump, starring Aamir Khan and Kareena Kapoor Khan released in August 2022, it failed to attract footfalls at theatres and suffered from a heady dose of boycott calls which many believe might have influenced ticket sales.

People, in the business of making films and their observers, are watching this trend closely and maybe with alarm. If this downward spiral persists, it will begin to affect other aspects of Bollywood. In this case, the brand endorsements of actors and actresses.

In 2021, film actors and actresses added more than 80% share of the ads which featured celebrities as per AdEx India, a division of TAM Media Research.

Advertisers put big money on ads with a large chunk of it going to the celebrities. However, poor Box Office showing and a controversy ridden public persona due to boycott calls can impact celebrities' brand deals.

“It definitely will,” says Karan Taurani, senior vice president, Elara Capital. He feels there will be some near-term glitches because it has been six months and performances have failed.

Vijay Subramaniam feels this is a “transitionary phase” and it will not have a long-term effect on celebrities because brands “are not signing a celebrity for what they are doing in the box office, they are signing celebrities for what they stand for.” He is co-founder and Group CEO, Collective Artists Network (formerly known as Kwan Talent Management).

However, the past might spell some different answers. Snapdeal went on to sever ties with Aamir Khan after he revealed his former wife Kiran Rao’s remark on India’s growing intolerance. The ouster was a response to the growing boycott calls of Khan’s movies at that time due to the remark.

With the present situation direr than in 2018, brands would surely be rethinking whom to sign as a brand ambassador and reexamining existing contracts.

“I don’t think so,” says Lloyd Mathias, a business strategist and an angel investor. He believes brands are and will undoubtedly be careful about their communication because there is a certain emphasis on cancel culture today online. “Brands will not drop celebrities” because there is value in a good brand-celebrity fit.

The first cut

Many actors and actresses, regardless of their family status, depend on multiple sources of income to sustain their lifestyle, because they not only need to act but they need to look the part especially when the paparazzi's lens is focused on them.

Enter endorsements.

For instance, Ranbir Kapoor and Alia Bhatt appear together in ads for Flipkart, an e-commerce company. Industry sources tell us Bhatt charges around Rs 5-7 crore per endorsement deal and Kapoor’s rate for the same is Rs 6-8 crore.

The two actors, a real-life married couple, are starring in the upcoming mythological fantasy Brahmastra. It was reportedly made on a budget of over Rs 400 crore and is being seen as the movie which could make or worsen Bollywood’s present state.

If it is the latter, advertisers will have an upper hand and celebrities might find it hard to charge fees they usually do and they will have to sit down with brands and negotiate, from a place of weakness.

To say films are not working and so celebrity endorsement fees will see an impact is a broad statement feels Subramaniam.

“If a particular actress or actor has a series of flops then a correction could happen,” he states and adds that whenever there is a downturn, things come back to normal. “There’s no need to spell doomsday.”

à la Nike anyone?

Not all brands think alike. Some are edgy, some are serious, and some are downright boring. What unites them, however, is a dislike of controversies. Sometimes, they cannot help it and fall prey to controversies because of their endorsers.

In 2021, clothing brand Mohey Manyavar was accused of hurting religious sentiments after an ad starring its brand ambassador Alia Bhatt spoke against the tradition of Kanyadaan.

CEAT Tyres too, in the same year, faced ire because it was alleged Aamir Khan was encouraging people to not burst crackers on the streets in one of the brand’s ads and it went against the spirit of Diwali.

Go back to 2016 for a second when San Francisco 49ers' (an NFL team) quarterback Colin Kaepernick started to kneel for the pre-game national anthem to protest against racial injustice in the United States. His move garnered polarising views including then US President Donald Trump urging NFL owners to fire him or anyone who protest during the national anthem. After that season, he has remained an unsigned player.

Nike, for the 30th anniversary of its Just Do it slogan chose the quarterback as the face of the campaign. “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything. Just do it,” says Kaepernick in the film.

Can we expect an Indian brand to stand up for an actor or actress if push comes to shove? “I think very few brands will in the current environment,” says Mathias. He says he is unsure how brands will defend someone but most will look to “pull back on advertising until the controversy cools off.”

Bollywood has done more for India than many can believe. However, the chasm it finds itself in may need rescuing from one or more of the larger-than-life heroes it has propped up over the decades.

One will have to wait to see if Bollywood’s near future will mimic that of Cinderella. Until then, remember what Shah Rukh Khan once said, "Picture abhi baaki hai mere dost."

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