Amitabh Bachchan, who has just turned 80, has probably endorsed more brands than any other actor in the world. Over his 50-year career, he has been the face of brands as varied as Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, Navratna Oil, Dr. Fixit, Gujarat Tourism, Mankind, Pepsi, Rin, Ghari Detergent, Reid & Taylor, upGrad, JustDial, ICICI Prudential Life, Flipkart, Tata Sky, TVS Jupiter, Cycle Agarbatti, FirstCry, Tanishq and Kalyan Jewellers, to name just a few. He has also been the driving force of several government campaigns such as the Polio Vaccine drive, Swachch Bharat Abhiyan, the Covid prevention drive and many more.
Surprisingly, most of these endorsements did not come his way during his ‘angry young man’ days. This label was given to him after the 1973 hit film Zanjeer where he played a hero who reflected society’s anger and frustration with a broken system and thus not the best persona you would want associated with your brand. He became everyone’s favourite brand ambassador after an unfortunate incident on the sets of the movie Coolie where a screen kick went wrong and landed him in hospital fighting for his life. An entire nation prayed for his recovery. And miraculously, the prayers worked. After this, Amitabh Bachchan was elevated to a god-like status by an adoring public. And a belief emerged among both advertisers and ad agencies that like Midas, any brand Amitabh Bachchan touched would turn to gold. And this was almost true. His fantastic success as a host for KBC only cemented this belief.
The flip side of this rash of endorsements meant that now Amitabh Bachchan was on almost every ad on TV. TV channels seemed to get some perverse pleasure in playing his ads back to back. Here he is rubbing his head with Navratna tel and immediately after this, he is wearing a colourful pagdi and selling the Rann of Kutch in a Gujarat Tourism ad – you could barely make out when one ad ended and the other began.
A belief emerged among both advertisers and ad agencies that like Midas, any brand Amitabh Bachchan touched would turn to gold. And this was almost true.
Today, Mr Bachchan has such a cult status that the public is offended when he endorses something that they feel he should not endorse. For instance, he faced a backlash for endorsing Pepsi – a sugary drink not looked at kindly by health-conscious moms. In response, he dropped his lucrative Pepsi deal and even made a public apology for endorsing it. He faced a similar problem when he was a brand ambassador for Maggi Noodles during the lead crisis. Today there is a rule that a brand ambassador can be held responsible for endorsing a product that is harmful. So Mr. Bachchan along with every other celebrity is far more careful when signing new endorsements.
In my days in advertising, I have created several ads with Mr. Bachchan, of which my all-time favourite was for a rather unexpected brand – Rin. This was in the ‘he can turn anything to gold’ days. The advertisement showed him as the principal of a missionary school, conducting admission interviews. A little boy enters in a dazzling white shirt which is in sharp contrast with the principal’s own yellowish cassock. To make matters worse, the little boy decides to recite a poem, “yellow yellow, dirty fellow.” The pairing was so cute that Mr Bachchan and the little boy were cast together again in the feature film Bhootnath.
Today, the Rin contract is long over and now Mr. Bachchan is endorsing Ghari detergent powder. Similarly, after his contract with Tanishq came to an end, he signed up with Kalyan Jewellers. When a trusted brand ambassador endorses a rival brand after the contract with one is over, it does create credibility issues in the minds of the consumer. In the public’s mind, it reinforces the belief that a celebrity does not really use any of these products, that they do the endorsements only for money. But even in this, we appear to be more forgiving towards the Big B than we are about others.
Mr. Bachchan’s best advertisements have always been the ones where the idea or script demands Mr. Bachchan, and you just cannot see anyone else doing that ad. The Polio prevention campaign definitely falls into this category. As we wish Mr. Bachchan many happy returns on his 80th birthday, we look forward to seeing him in many more such advertisements.
Nandita Chalam is a visiting lecturer on Advertising at Xavier Institute Of Communications, and former Senior VP and ECD, JWT. Views expressed are personal.