Why do celebrities endorse automotive products? Because they get paid huge monies to do it.
One of the first celebrity auto ads I remember was from the 1990s; a small three-column print ad on the bottom right corner of a national daily. It had Sanjay Dutt leaning against a Tata Safari. Saying something sage like, “Why spend on a Pajero when you can get a Safari at half the cost”. The Safari proved to be a successful product for Tata—it’s still in production after all—but I wonder how much Sanjay Dutt had to do with its success. Especially given that there was no other SUV in the market when it was launched.
Then there was the famous Maruti Versa ad with Amitabh and Abhishek Bachchan. That didn’t quite help thanks to the MPV’s high positioning. Of course, we all know that it is now sold as the Eeco, at a relatively lower price point. And back in 2005, Ford’s Go Fida ad for the Fiesta (now, Classic) had Abhishek Bachchan. Yes, you may not recall that but you will easily recall Ford Ikon’s Josh Machine ads, which had no celebrities. I understand the Ikon was, easily, a bigger success story.
In 2011, Mr Bachchan was back. This time with Force Motors and its SUV, the Force One. That ad, I remember, had the senior Bachchan reminding us that “only force works in India”. Which is true. But three years down the line, making a bigger success out of the brute is still a work-in-progress.
Aamir Khan can actually claim one success story when it comes to Indian car ads. His 2006 commercial for the Innova did probably help Toyota. He could take credit for an MPV succeeding in India for the first time. But then, he couldn’t save the fortunes of Mahindra’s first bike in this country. Despite an honest commercial featuring the actor, not to mention a four-year warranty on the bike, the Stallio was discontinued, albeit due to technical issues.
Sachin Tendulkar hasn’t been as successful for auto brands as he has been for our cricket team. His association with Fiat got him a Ferrari back in 2003. But he couldn’t help Fiat sustain the Palio’s initial success. More recently, Nissan had Ranbir Kapoor endorsing the Micra. And Anil Kapoor endorsed the Renault Pulse. But it is still down to the marketing and sales teams of the two companies to put in all the hard work and get customers to the dealerships.
Now, here’re two examples of manufacturers having bonafide success without celebrities. Ever since Honda launched the Activa in 2001, demand has been strong; there’s a waiting list in many cities even today, more than a decade later. Enfield also has never used celebrities for its ads. But placing its product in Bollywood films and getting Katrina Kaif to ride it probably benefited it more than any endorsement could ever have.
So, given the sketchy record of celeb endorsements in India, I take the responsibility of offering a solution to manufacturers. In the future, please use politicians instead of movie and sports stars. They’ll work out cheaper and do the brand a lot more good.
Arvind Kejriwal could, for example, endorse the Maruti Wagon R. Given how the car has always been positioned as “very smart” and how AK has outsmarted his rivals, I think it’d be a good match. Manmohan Singh could endorse the HM Ambassador, given that they’re both about the same age and look the same in white.
As a successful ex-Italian in India, Sonia Gandhi could endorse any Fiat car here. Maybe some of her success would rub off on the company. Modi should endorse the Tata Nano. Oh wait, he already has. Tactical endorsements may help too. P. Chidambaram and Jairam Ramesh should endorse any big diesel SUV so they’d shut up about the diesel subsidies being misdirected. And Shinde could endorse any CNG/LPG car because he’s so full of gas. And…
Sigh… I always run out of time when my brilliant ideas begin to flow.