It used to be that to use a celebrity in an ad was to stand out against the norm (ads without celebrities). These days, it’s hard to throw a stone without hitting a celebrity endorser in an ad. Take a look at any ten ads during the current IPL season and the glut of celebrity – cricket and Bollywood kind - in advertising is apparent. The list includes Aamir Khan, Akshay Kumar, Amitabh Bachchan, Alia Bhatt, Ajay Devgan, Anushka Sharma, Ayushmann Khurana, Deepika Padukone, M.S. Dhoni, Ranbir Kapoor, Ranveer Singh, Shah Rukh Khan, Varun Dhawan, Vicky Kaushal and Virat Kohli.
What is going on here? And I’m putting aside the usual explanation of the lack of ideas in advertising these days, for now.
Most advertising has always deployed the classic cinematic strategy of inducing a willing suspension of disbelief. You don’t expect Amitabh Bachchan, for example, to actually be talking to an UrbanClap guy or his local mistri and telling him to be sure to use Dr. Fixit for leaks in his house. You don’t expect, in the first place, that there would be leaks in Amitabh Bachchan’s house. But you’re willing to suspend your disbelief about such a scenario, enough to not dismiss the message offhand.
You don’t expect Aamir Khan to be using a Vivo phone in the same vein as you don’t stop to question whether Vicky Kaushal would flaunt an Oppo phone. But you go along with the gag anyway. You highly doubt if #Virushka are traipsing through European-looking cities going Myntra-la-la and binge-shopping for clothes and shoes. But hey, whatevs.
Even the best ads without celebrities—think of all the #SmellLikeAMan Old Spice ads or the Dove Real Beauty ads or the Budweiser Whassup ads (I’m just choosing non-Indian ads so I don’t inadvertently plug any work from my agency)—use this old trick. Your man is not going to arrive on a horse, nor are you going to have police sketch-artists waiting to show you your inner beauty. Ok, maybe you do go around screaming “Whaaaassssssuuuuuuup” into people’s ears, but that’s a rarity.
The point is, as regular people, we’re willing and able to separate reel life from real life, for the most part. We’ve got industry watchdogs to rein us advertisers in when we cross the line and become deceptive. Which is why this suspension of disbelief is willing. That’s the operative word.
It’s what explains what I might call an extreme test of our limits as consumers of advertising—from the point of view of using celebrity endorsers as well as the willing suspension of disbelief.
But let me get you up to speed with some relationships, first, in case you’ve been living under a rock for a while.
Alia Bhatt and Ranbir Kapoor are currently “a thing”. (#Albir, anyone?). Ranbir Kapoor and Deepika Padukone (I’m not going to try any hashtags here) were together previously. Deepika is now married to Ranveer Singh. With me so far?
So of course now, as advertisers, we have to make the khichdi a little more confusing. Here’s how.
Ranveer wakes Alia up before setting off on a business trip for a Make My Trip ad. Meanwhile, Alia’s current beau Ranbir is bantering with his ex, Deepika in an Asian Paints ad, in a house that you don’t really know belongs to which one of the two (unless they’re living-in together). To round off the day, Ranveer irks Deepika (his wife in reel and real life) and then cleverly makes up for it with an app-controlled AC from Lloyd.
(Aside: Don’t these Bollywood couples discuss their work with each other and know their paths will be crisscrossing like this?)
You might think that most people might not be up to date with all the Bollywood gossip and be highly confused, especially if they encountered all three of the above ads consecutively (which was highly likely during the current IPL season).
But, in fact, two everyday phenomena are at work here to dispel any confusion.
The first is the one that I’ve already spoken about: a willing suspension of disbelief. (“Yaar, this is how Bollywood is anyway. I wouldn’t be surprised if you know Ranbir is, you know…”)
The second is possibly the one that should alert advertisers to what they could be doing better: People just don’t care that much about advertising to fuss over these celebrity wires crossing. The casualty in all this? The brands that are putting all this advertising out there.
Because I highly doubt that, unlike someone like me who is invested in stalking and decoding advertising all the time, the regular person would be able to tell one celebrity from the other, one ad from the other. And you as a brand custodian will end up with consumer speak like this: “Arey, woh Lloyd wala ad hai na, jisme Alia Bhatt aur Ranbir Kapoor hai?” If they talk about any of the ads at all, in the first place.
That’s when a brand’s goose, not just khichdi, will be cooked.
-The author is group executive and strategy officer, Dentsu Aegis Network South Asia. Views expressed are personal.