Friday, February 17, 2017

Aamir Khan's Games and a Management Lesson on Celebrity Brand Endorsements

Movie poster of Dangal
[image credit: Disney]
ow that it is becoming clear that Aamir Khan's latest movie, "Dangal", is going to be a blockbuster hit (it's already recorded the second-highest opening of any movie in 2016), and with significant financial contributions in the form of ticket sales from the so-called right-wing brigade, it is time to go back in time a little bit and look at lessons learned and not learned. Lessons on brand management, lessons on social boycotts and boycott-fatigue, and lessons on adaptability.
On November 23, 2015, Aamir Khan, a Bollywood actor, jumped on the "intolerance" bandwagon and made statements in a conversation with Anant Goenka at the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Awards (the subject of what the "intolerance" bandwagon is is beyond the scope of this article, but it should suffice to state that the "intolerance" tamasha was a media-orchestrated campaign to manufacture stories to malign the Narendra Modi govt as "intolerant" to minorities). He said that his wife "feared for her child" and that there was an "atmosphere" of "disquiet" in the country, and that Kiran (Aamir Khan's wife) wanted to "move out of India" (IndiaToday, The Hindu, Indian Express).
Aamir Khan [credit: Indian Express]
From a video clip available (one clip), it is instructional to hear what exactly Aamir Khan had to say (transcription is mine):
"There has been a growing sense of despondency I would say [applause, claps]. I mean, when I sit at home and talk to Kiran, you know, Kiran and I have lived all our lives in India. For the first time Kiran says "Should we move out of India?" Now that's a disastrous and very big statement for Kiran to make to me [claps, applause]. She fears for her child, she fears ... for you know what the atmosphere around us will be... err... she feels scared to open the newspapers everyday.  uh... so that does indicate that there is a sense of growing disquiet, there's a sense of despondency..."

While mainstream media lapped up his statements wholly and uncritically, social media predictably went into a tizzy. For mainstream media, Aamir Khan's statements were ripe fodder for the narrative it had been spinning ever since the Narendra Modi govt came to office in May 2014, and even before that. Social media, on the other hand, had been meticulously deconstructing every single lie, exaggeration, half-truth, distortion, and selectivity that mainstream media spun out. Since Aamir Khan was at the time a brand ambassador for online retailer SnapDeal, there were immediate calls by people for the company to drop the actor. It eventually did. Some in mainstream media, including journalists, one of whom had called for a boycott of Honey Singh in 2012, but by 2015 had turned into an anti-boycott diva, rubbished such calls of boycotting Aamir Khan as yet another example of "intolerance."

Burning coach S-6 of Sabarmati Express, Feb 27, 2002
It was not the first time that Aamir Khan had courted controversy - some say, deliberately, calculatedly. In 2005, Aamir Khan had lent his name and signature to a "petition" by ANHAD, an NGO formed within months of the brutal, cold-blooded murder of more than 50 Hindus - men, women, and children - on a train in the Gujarat town of Godhra, and the ensuing riots. ANHAD would later come under scrutiny from the government for "its undesirable activities against public interest" (link). ANHAD would claim to fight against communalism in the country, but the government's Ministry of Home Affairs would cite ANHAD for indulging in "undesirable activities that would increase inter sectarian tension among Muslims in India as well as increase fundamentalism." The irony of Aamir Khan, a supposed "intellectual", lending his signature to a petition by such an organization would not be lost on most.

Then there was Satyameva Jayate, the "reality show on social causes", where Aamir Khan cried (or pretended to cry - it's never possible to tell) bucketloads of tears. Given that he charged ₹3 crores (approximately US$450,000) per episode for the first season, and ₹4 crores (approximately US$600,000 at today's exchange rates) for the second season, one can only assume those were tears of joy. For Aamir Khan to then state that "If I look at it financially, commercially then I am earning less" one can only speculate what those tears were about. That Aamir Khan has a right to be paid for his television or screen appearances is not in debate here. One could however point to the example of Amitabh Bachchan, who did not charge a single paisa for the work he did as Gujarat's brand ambassador, or for his work on the polio eradication campaign, but that may be setting the bar very, very high for Aamir Khan! But what smacks of cold-blooded myth-making is for anyone to make the case that Aamir Khan is some noble, altruistic modern-day Bollywood mahatma. Far from it. While a lesser mortal like Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar was busy donating fifty lakh rupees rupees to Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyaan, an initiative by the Maharashtra government to alleviate the water crisis in rural Maharashtra, Aamir Khan was content with "working" with yet another NGO (that he himself had co-founded!)

Whereas "Snapdeal had extensively featured Khan in its 'Dil Ki Deal' print, television and digital campaigns," (link) it stopped featuring Aamir Khan in its advertisements almost immediately after the controversy broke out. It sought to distance itself from the actor's statements by saying Aamir Khan had made those comments in his "personal" capacity, nonetheless, when his contract came up for renewal in Feb 2016, SnapDeal chose not to renew it.

In the next part I will look at the perils of celebrity brand endorsements and the perils therein.

This post was first published in Vijayvaani on Jan 1, 2017.

Part 2

t the time of this brouhaha over Aamir Khan's controversial remarks and calls for SnapDeal to drop him as its brand ambassador, I had attempted to understand and explain the perils of celebrity brand endorsements. I had said celebrity brand endorsements were a double-edged sword for companies, and why they could not expect to bask in the glow of celebrity endorsements but shy away from being singed when those same celebrities played with fire.

When companies go with star brand endorsements, it is in the hopes of quick returns - increased sales, jump in stock-price, brand recall, and brand equity. For example, one study found "sales for brands in a variety of consumer-product categories jumped an average of 4 percent in the six months following the start of an endorsement deal, even after controlling for advertising expenditures and other factors that could be expected to drive up sales."

Brands sign up celebrities so as to build positive associations between the star and the brand. Which is why makers of children's goods like toys, foods, and babycare products will rope in actresses that have a maternal appeal (which rules out single Bollywood starlets, since they would not be caught dead endorsing baby products).  It helps gain acceptance, brand recall, and companies hope that the association with the celebrity helps transfer attributes from the celebrity to the brand. This is important for a brand to build differentiation in the market. Differentiation is what helps a brand charge a premium over other, similar, commodity goods. Premium pricing is, at the end of the day, the name of the game.

Celebrity brand endorsements however are also a sign of sloth. In the normal course of things, it takes time, it takes money, and it takes hard work to build a brand. It takes neither time, nor hard work, and certainly not skill to take a celebrity and plaster him or her in front of your company's product. The results are, like noodles, almost instantaneous. But stars, when they fall, also take down the brands they endorse - the examples of Tiger WoodsBill Cosby, and now Maria Sharapova should serve as warnings. Why is that?

Companies want consumers to buy their products because of the celebrity endorsing their product. Companies say, in not so many words - "See this celebrity actor? He is a handsome, successful, charming, witty, personable fellow (at least that's what he appears in the movies he stars in) that you would want to bring home to your family to meet. He is appearing in an advertisement for our product, endorsing our product. So of course, our product is also as good as this celebrity. Therefore, buy our product and you will also become as handsome, successful, charming, witty, and personable as the celebrity." This, in short, is the essence of brand associations. Sometimes companies also want to portray a certain elitism to their products; having a celebrity helps since it implies that you are not a cheapskate - you are willing to put down serious money for a celebrity to endorse your product.

So what went wrong in the case of Aamir Khan? Let's start with the help of a hypothetical (hypothetical, let me repeat) discussion between a child and her father.

Child: appa
Father: yes chinna.

Child: appa, I saw that actor on TV saying his wife is scared, she fears for her child, she wants to leave India.
Father: really?

Child: yes, and at school my teacher said it's because Hindus have been threatening people, and that the PM has been threatening minorities and that's why Aamir Khan's wife wants to leave India. I didn't threaten anyone. Are we Hindus bad?
Father: hmm, of course not, chinna. That's not true at all.

Child: so why is the actor saying all those things?
Father: well, sometimes people say things that are not true

Child: why? Didn't his parents and teachers and friends tell him not to speak lies?
Father: I am sure his parents and teachers and friends all told him not to speak lies.

Child: then why is he telling a lie?
Father: it is complicated chinna

Child: like math? But I don't find math complicated.
Father: sometimes people want to appear good, so they say things that are not true.

Child: how can a person be good if he says things that are not true?
Father: sometimes people say things so they will get money.

Child: but how can people do that? Is money everything for them? Doesn't he have enough money?
Father: and sometimes people say things that are not true but they still go ahead and say those things because they don't like other people

Child: what are you saying? What do you mean?
Father: Let's take an example. Let's assume there are two people - one is called "A" and the other is called "B". If "A" does not like "B", or if "A" doesn't like anyone who is like person "B", then "A" will say things about "B" that are not true.

Child: all the time?
Father: no, not all the time, but certainly some of the times.

Child: so how can I believe this person "A" then? How do I know he is not lying at all times?
Father: this is why we must not accept anything that someone says without first checking for ourselves.

Child: but appa, the newspapers said it was true.
Father: this is why our newspapers have a duty, a sacred duty, to not just report but also investigate.

Child: did the newspapers examine this actor's statements?
Father: yes, they should have, and they should have said that what the actor said was not true, but they didn't.

Child: why not?
Father: because sometimes newspapers also don't want to do what's right.

Child: why not?
Father: it is complicated chinna. Perhaps some other time.

Child: but this actor also comes on television talking good things about a company. Is he telling the truth there?
Father: why do you ask?

Child: if this actor can lie in one place, how do I know he is not lying elsewhere? Maybe he tells lies all the time. Maybe he is lying when he comes in the ad and asks people to buy from that company.
Father: Good question.

Child: so why do you have that company's app on your phone? If the company pays money to someone who lies, how do I know that they will they sell something good to us and not lie simply to get our money?
Father: hmm... good question. What do you think I should do?

Child: don't buy anything from that company.

There in lies the problem with celebrity brand endorsements. As perishes the celebrity, so it perils the brand, especially when the brand association is very strong. If the advertising is effective, and the brand association built through advertising is strong, then I, as a consumer, will buy a company's products because I believe the celebrity when he/she tells me to do so. Now, if the celebrity says, "India is 'intolerant', its people 'intolerant'," and so on, it creates cognitive dissonance in my mind that I must resolve. If I believe the celebrity is honest, then I must also believe that he truly believes his second statement, i.e., that India is "intolerant" and that there is "despondency" around. If on the other hand, if I believe the celebrity is being manipulative for commercial (or worse) reasons, then I must discount his first statement too; i.e., that the celebrity is insincere when advertising for the brand and insincere when making these public statements. This the risk a company runs when signing up celebrities as its brand ambassadors - the risk of the celebrity turning rogue!

One argument put forth is that a call for a boycott is nothing short of bullying and intimidation, and one journalist even went as far as to call it "sickening". That, frankly, is a ridiculous argument to make. At the end of the day, a boycott is among the more civilized expressions of dissent. To make sure we stay within the context, we are talking of people choosing not to buy from a particular company or a product. We are not talking of a social boycott here. The target of companies is the consumer's wallet. The consumer, when choosing to boycott the company, is also conversing in the same language. Any form of protest, for it to be effective, has to materially affect the target of the protest. 

Another argument against a boycott is that the celebrity's personal views should not be conflated with the product, or products, the celebrity is endorsing. That can be a valid argument if the personal opinion is expressed within the confines of a private space. When expressed in a as public a forum, as Aamir Khan did, it ceases to be a personal opinion, and becomes irretrievably public. Almost nothing a celebrity does in public remains personal or private. Remember the case of Mel Gibson, the Hollywood actor who was arrested for drunken driving in 2006. During his arrest, Gibson exploded into a tirade against Jews. This led to an almost decade-long boycott of Gibson by Hollywood. If one goes by the argument put forth, Mel Gibson's anti-Semitic views should have been his personal opinion, and that it should have been no one's business that he held such views. But this would mean a complete abdication of our personal responsibilities as responsible citizens to protest against racism, religious phobia, and socially undesirable behaviours by those who are held up in society as role models. What was true in Gibson's case was equally valid in Aamir Khan's case.

SnapDeal quietly discontinued Aamir Khan as its brand ambassador in Feb 2016, choosing not to renew its contract with the actor. This was however, the last "victory" that the pro-boycott group would achieve. Why, I will look in the concluding part.

This post was first published in Vijayvaani on Jan 2, 2017.

Part 3

hen two movies of King Khan (as Bollywood actor Shahrukh Khan is sometimes called) flopped (less successful than expected at the very least - Dilwale in 2015 and Fan in 2016), in succession, it sent shockwaves around Bollywood and beyond. While the poor box-office receipts could be attributed to the movies themselves, many nonetheless attributed at least part of the failures to a boycott of Shahrukh Khan that originated in social media.

Manufacturing controversies to drum up interest in movies before their launch is nothing new to Bollywood. Whilst in the past the favoured vehicles for such controversies was the link-up, or tiff, between the leading stars of the movie, in recent times the trajectory has turned more political. A case in point, again, is Bollywood actor Aamir Khan, who made statements criticizing the Narmada Dam project to drum up a controversy, and therefore interest, in his movie Fanaa, in 2006. In an interview to a news portal, he made several statements which were at best irresponsible: “I want the people of India to see that here is a political party (BJP) that does not believe in democracy. Here is a party that does not believe in the rights of poor people.” [link]

The success of the protests against Bollywood stars and their handlers (“publicists”, to use a polite word) misusing their popularity to further divisive social agendas was somewhat unprecedented. This was a case where the government of the day was keeping a studiously neutral stance and refusing to intervene or be seen as intervening. This was a big change from the past, where the government in power - most often led by the Congress party - had censored and clamped down on Bollywood whenever it stepped out of line.

Bollywood legends Dev AnandAmitabh BachchanKishore Kumar, and others all had faced the brunt of an oppressive regime. This time was different. It was the common man, mostly, congregating around a collective voice provided by social media, led by the so-called right-wing, who rose against the tyranny of the Bollywood cabal. That this was successful meant it was no longer business as usual.

Coming off the successful manufacturing of controversies like “intolerance” and “award wapsi” in 2014 and 2015, mainstream media could be forgiven if they went into a state of shock. For the incestuous cabal of mainstream media, self-proclaimed intellectuals, and Lutyens fixers, who had become accustomed to life-as-usual, this was a rude wake-up call. Control over Bollywood is not just about money, or only about influence, or only about fame.

It’s a combination of all three. Money comes in from criminals, terrorists, religious bigots, and meets warped ideologies of liberals who see nothing good in Indian culture and nothing bad in imported mores; all this is amplified manifold through Bollywood. Movies have been the favoured vehicle for dispensation of propaganda for decades - whether it was Walt Disney Productions making propaganda movies for the US government (link), or perpetuating feminine stereotypes (link), or Hollywood studios’ collaboration with the Nazis (see Ben Urwand’s ‘The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler'), movies are the most scalable, most effective, and most easily disguised medium of indoctrination.

Bollywood has been no different, and its unholy alliance with western ideologies, terrorists, and the mafia is well-known but rarely written about - mainstream media is complicit in this conspiracy of silence. ‘PK’ was another such movie, that ridiculed Hinduism, which was rumoured to be financed by Pakistan’s ISI (link), and yet went on to make more than Rs 700 crore, most of which came from the very same Hindus the movie ridiculed.

How is that even possible? For a people to pay huge sums of money to someone who insults and ridicules them and their faith? To understand this better, assume if a group of people were to tell the public - ‘we want to portray Hinduism in an ugly light, ridicule its gods, traditions, and culture, promote pre-marital sex, promiscuity, glorify stalking, impose foreign social values, and help launder drug money on a massive scale. For that we need the very same people and culture and nation we seek to destroy to pay us thousands of crores of rupees.’ Needless to say, neither those people nor their appeal for money would go very far.

On the other hand, if those people were to make movies which do every single thing just highlighted, package them in a wrapper of sex, violence, and glamour, not only would no one question them, but their intended victims would willingly spend thousands of crores of rupees to watch these very movies, in essence funding their would-be destroyers. Furthermore, the very same people would go out of their way to defend this group from any criticism. This is what happened with the movie PK, and that is what happens with countless other movies.

In a nutshell, this describes the modus operandi of the cabal whose one face is Bollywood. This is also why ceding control or allowing its voice to become any less potent is unacceptable to the cabal.

A movie, “Aye Dil Hai Mushkil,” was about to be released in 2016, featuring a Pakistani actor (for no good reason; unsubstantiated rumours floated that there was some element of collaboration between Pakistan’s notorious ISI and the cabal). Then came the September 2016 terrorist attacks on the Indian Army brigade headquarters in Uri, near the Line of Control, in which 17 Indian army soldiers were killed.

The Indian Army’s response, via surgical strikes across the Line of Control, less than two weeks later, changed the mood of the nation. There was a new assertiveness that would brook no collaboration with a suspected terrorist nation. Bollywood, on the other hand, wanted to pretend like nothing had happened and that the arts and reality needed to be kept apart. The very vocal protests said different.

Bollywood, to its credit, adapted with lightning speed.

Karan Johar, the movie’s director, made a much-ridiculed video, where he appealed to people to come watch his movie, and not mix the terrorist attacks sponsored by a country whose actor he had paid huge sums of money. Others jumped in to denounce terrorism, profess their patriotism, and usually ended with appeals to let their commercial interests be unaffected.

The net result was that the movie was a commercial success. It made its actors, its producer, its funders a lot of money. The lessons were obvious. Bollywood needed to make no material change in its outlook or behaviour; no introspection was required. All it needed to do was cloak its agenda with a patina of fashionable nationalism. The spectacle of the people exercising their power via boycotts seemed like a distant, and bad, nightmare.

One movie had run and cleared the ‘boycott’ gauntlet. A second movie, this time from Bollywood actor Shahrukh Khan, released almost without fanfare, became a commercial hit (never mind that it was a trite rehash of countless Hollywood flicks that showcase pop-psychology via a young, nubile, confused starlet taking in vacuous platitudes doled out by a cynical, way-past-middle-age hero trying desperately to look twenty years younger). This was further evidence of the famous short memory of the so-called right-wing in the country.

The third silver bullet in the cabal’s armoury was faux nationalism. The very same actor who thought little before appending his signature to a petition from a communal, anti-national group thought equally nothing before mouthing off a statement like this - “Country matters more than film’s business - Aamir Khan on PM Modi’s demonetisation move” (link) That he made this statement on the eve of the release of his upcoming movie, ‘Dangal’, was entirely coincidental.

The movie had an ample dose of nationalism injected in it, including the unfurling of the tricolour and a rendition of the national anthem. The Indian right-wing is famous for many things, but a coherence of strategy and long-term memory isn’t one of them. It lapped up this faux nationalism, shed tears of nationalistic joy, tears that forgot and forgave Aamir Khan for all sins committed and yet to be committed. The result is that Dangal is on its way to becoming the highest grossing movie in Indian cinema.

The money that Dangal will make, a substantial portion of which will go to the movie’s leading actor and producer - both of which are one and the same person - will be funnelled back into making other India-bashing and Hindu-phobic movies, funding groups to hack away at India’s cultural limbs; but the Indian right-wing couldn’t care less. It had its moment of glory with the successful boycott of Shahrukh Khan’s two movies and the storm-in-a-teacup over ‘Aye Dil Hai Mushkil’ and was content with those non-victories. It lacks the stomach or possibly the intellect to develop any cohesive or long-term strategy for countering the breaking India forces that are extremely strong and entrenched in Bollywood; while the cabal is almost infinitely more capable, resourceful, and better organised. When faced with a crisis, the cabal responded with the greater suppleness, alacrity, and co-ordination.

The portents are ominous.

This post was first published in Vijavaani on Jan 3, 2017.

© 2017, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.