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What about the celebrities in food ads?

The row over Bournvita last month was spurred by a social-media influencer’s viral video of the product’s allegedly unhealthy sugar content. Following a legal threat from Mondelez International India, which makes Bournvita, the influencer deleted his video and apologised. But on April 26, the National Commission on the Protection of Child Rights issued a letter to Mondelez alleging violations of various Sections of the Consumer Protection Act 2019 and to withdraw all “misleading” advertisements of and packaging on its product.

The issue spotlighted, among other things, the difference between what is advertised and what is presented in fine print.

India has one of the world’s largest burdens of diabetes. Of late, diabetes incidence in rural India has been found to be increasing as well, possibly driven by a stronger correlation between diabetes incidence and awareness (using literacy as a proxy) rather than wealth. Diabetes is a noncommunicable disease rooted in, among other things, lethargic lifestyles, lack of exercise, and the consumption of processed foods and foods of low nutritional value, typically called ‘junk food’. Historically, advertisements of this product type have often resorted to deceptive marketing tactics.

In an apparent effort to curb such tactics on social media platforms, in January 2023, the Department of Consumer Affairs (DoCA) announced guidelines for ‘influencers’ who promote health and wellness products. One of them was that influencers have to disclose their qualifications, implying that if the people at large see that if an influencer has a degree in geology but is promoting a cream to prevent hair loss, they will take the claims with a pinch of salt. But will they?

Bad ads

Every advertisement for a food product is a combination of testing and quality control, marketing and consumer behaviour, and safety and regulations. While the purposes of these forces have been discussed at length, the second merits a closer look for the part played by one particular actor.

During a press conference in June 2021, footballer Cristiano Ronaldo replaced two bottles of Coca Cola from the podium in front of him with a bottle of water, saying “agua”, Portuguese for “water”. His gesture took the world by storm – but it also stood in stark contrast to an advertisement just a month later in which cricketer Jasprit Bumrah appeared in an advertisement in India for a popular aerated beverage.

Similarly, mainstream Bollywood actors have appeared in advertisements for certain products, only terminating their contracts after significant public backlash and/or allegations of surrogate-advertising. At least one of these advertisements continues to air on TV with the same personalities (all of whom are Padma awardees). Some ‘stars’ also appear in advertisements promoting the consumption of aerated beverages and packaged sugary drinks and for FMCG goods that claim to be “Ayurvedic”.

Indeed, there is no “Ayurvedic herb” in traditional medicine at large because herbs are not exclusive to Ayurveda. Yet there are products on the market, like toothpastes, that claim to bring some arbitrary ‘Ayurvedic benefit’ just by including “Ayurvedic herbs” like spices in the admixture. Who checks these claims? Where are the results of the tests of such incremental innovation, if they are conducted at all, published? Who monitors compliance?

Despite the uncertainty over answers to these questions, such products are still marketed and sold because personality-driven marketing is just as potent, if not more, as evidence-based marketing. And the DoCA guidelines need to respond to this fact. Otherwise, only public-spirited scientists and engaged consumers, often operating with fewer resources than those required to meet an FMCG behemoth in court, are left asking the tough questions.

Taste the medicine

We must also ask whether personalities consume the products they advertise – less as evidence of their “due diligence”, in the DoCA’s words, and more because of the class-stratified access to healthy foods as well as to the knowledge required to interpret the information presented in food labels, in India.

Even when the actual nutritional information is printed in small font on the back of a bottle or packet, not everyone possesses the literacy to understand and interpret that information right.

For example, say a large study (that is subsequently also replicated) reports in a major journal that substance X is associated with a significant adverse effect. In order to avoid a food product that contains X in future (assuming India’s food standards are yet to catch up), a person will have to locate and read the label, understand and properly interpret the metric details, and be aware of the journal, the paper, and its findings. This requires at least good news literacy and ideally scientific literacy. The persons we can expect to have the former, if not the latter, are the country’s wealthier, more learned citizens.

Sportspersons and film actors place a premium on their fitness and work with specialists like nutritionists and physical therapists to tailor and optimise their eating habits. Do these habits include sugary drinks et al.? Because if they don’t, these individuals should think twice before agreeing to promote these products in the first place, rather than backing out after advertisements have been filmed and aired.

After the Bournvita row erupted, experts and activists berated the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India for its lacklustre monitoring of compliance by food business operators and unwillingness to initiate punitive action. Between these concerns and the DoCA stopping short of empowering those producing evidence-based criticism of unhealthy foods, there is a mismatch between advertising practices and consumer safety, and effectively India’s efforts to curb the rise of diabetes and other similar diseases.

The people at large could use the help of their celebrities to bridge this gap.