Are celebrities liable for the brands they endorse?

The writer says that when a celebrity appears on screen to represent a company, people come to associate the celebrity's aura with that of the company. But there are levels of deception that can't be ignored.

Hassan Munhamanna

Hassan Munhamanna

The Daily Star


March 18, 2022

DHAKA – On December 4 last year, in the immediate aftermath of the crumbling of Evaly’s empire of sand, celebrities Rafiath Rashid Mithila, Tahsan Khan and Shabnam Faria were sued by a customer of the e-commerce platform for “aiding and abetting fraud.”

Over the next few weeks, the issue became something of a sensation on social media, sparking conversations in some intellectual quarters about the premise of the lawsuit, about whether the three very popular celebrities could be held responsible for Evaly’s wrongdoings.

Though the conversation died down soon—as is always the case on social media—the issue stuck with me. What really is the ethics of celebrity endorsements, which have become an integral and rather indispensable part of the equation in this current phase of capitalism?

Before we get to an answer to this, let’s consider what actually happens when a celebrity figure, or an influencer, endorses a brand or business in exchange for money.

It’s simple, really. A celebrity, throughout their career, builds up a rapport with the public. This imbues the celebrity with a certain kind of aura—there’s the trustworthy celebrity, the bad boy, the family-first person, the celebrity with professional expertise, and the list goes on.

This rapport (or, social capital) is then “sold” to a company in exchange for the company’s money. The transaction here, then, is one of monetary capital for social capital, and vice versa. Beyond just face value, when a celebrity appears on our screens representing a company, we immediately link the celebrity’s brand value or aura with that of the company.

The three celebrities in question over the Evaly scam all possess the same trustworthy sort of face value. Mithila is widely regarded as a strong, sincere feminist personality. Tahsan Khan has a carefully curated brand name for being a kind and gentle soul. And Shabnam Faria comes off as a sincere and loyal person, thanks to all the roles she has played on-screen over the years.

If we agree that a popular figure’s brand value is not just a result of their real selves, but can also be calculated quite carefully and with intent, we can shed light on how this element works in the discourse of celebrity endorsements.

There are two layers of “deception” that operate here. On one hand, the performer-artiste poses as being different from how they are in order to obtain a certain kind of social capital from their audience. For the second layer, the artiste uses that social capital to strike deals with brands and drive their audience towards said brands.

Given how the Evaly scam played out, the more pressing concerns of the issue came to the fore quite forcefully. But this issue is not just limited to fraudulence.

When a celebrity, known for their good health, lends their social capital to a beverage company whose product can have debilitating effects on consumers’ health, is it not the same kind of deception?

You see, given how society works today, a brand cannot build a relationship with its market without a little help from figures who already have a connection with the people. Seen this way, a celebrity who has once signed the contract to endorse a brand can no longer be seen separately from it, or from the consequences of its business. So when things come crumbling down, the affiliated celebrities cannot just be allowed to run and hide, claiming they didn’t know any better.

Brands themselves are aware of this, and don’t wait even a second before cutting off their prized endorsee when a controversy develops in the latter’s personal life. Case in point: Cristiano Ronaldo and Nike.

Another case study that sheds light on this issue is that of Scarlett Johansson’s role as an ambassador for both Israeli soda-maker Sodastream and the INGO Oxfam. After online activists found out that one of Sodastream’s factories is located in an illegal settlement on the West Bank, they started hounding Johansson for her connection to the company—a criticism which also extended to Oxfam for their connection with her.

As this case illustrates, when the activities of corporations stop being innocent in the name of doing business and raising a country’s GDP, should not the role of celebrities in enhancing the corporations’ fate be scrutinised as well?

As the activities of corporations are deemed not innocent due to those being done only for profit, shouldn’t the role of celebrities in enhancing the corporations’ success be scrutinised as well?

But beyond just scrutiny, we ought to move into a culture wherein, before signing a deal, a celebrity conducts background research on a brand—the same way brands do, quite extensively, when taking a celebrity on board. And this fact-checking exercise shouldn’t be limited to legal matters or instances of public backlash, but also in terms of whether a celebrity’s philosophy aligns with the company’s. If a self-proclaimed nature-lover signs up for a top-five polluter, for instance, that’s more than a little contradictory.

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