June 04, 2015

The law doesn't blame Madhuri for Maggi... even if you want to!

It was reported on Tuesday that an independent advocate has filed a case against actors Amitabh Bachhan, Madhuri Dixit and Preity Zinta who endorsed the household product we all grew up with — Maggi. 

The ‘two-minute’ noodles have been in the eye of the storm since it was revealed that several batches of their products across India contained dangerous levels of lead, which can be fatal. And now, so are the celebrities whose shining faces on silver screens told the rest of us to “Love Maggi.”

It cannot be questioned that celebrities are people who exert a lot of influence over the general public, and should exercise this power in a responsible, not reckless manner. 

According to the Food Standards and Safety Authority of India (FSSAI) Act, anyone whomsoever is a party to a misleading advertisement or its publication can be fined up to Rs 10 lakh. 

In February, last year, the Central Consumer Protection Council (CCPC), the apex body for consumer protection in India, ruled that actors could be held liable for making “false claims” in advertisements and endorsing a product that they “know to be misleading.”

So, on the face of it, there seems a possibility that Bacchhan senior and the rest of Bollywood’s finest may be in a hot soup. But the CCPC was clear about one thing: these people can only be held accountable for endorsements or statements they made “recklessly” or if they had knowledge that the product was unsafe, or the advertisement claim false or misleading.

It all boils down to what lawyers call mens rea; and what we call intention. Did Amitabh know there was a high-lead percentage in Maggi noodles? Did Zinta? What about Madhuri? Did your local grocer know? Did the canteen-cook who gives you a plate during teatime every day? 

There is no belittling the role of celebrity endorsements in India —they account of half our country’s ads. Also, you don’t even need to be Indian to know the the influence a Bacchan exert on the country’s less educated population — which is, sadly, still in the majority. One can safely say, products can be moved on the basis of Madhuri’s smile alone. 

Yet, the law is clear — to be liable, they must have been reckless or had knowledge of their false claims. As of yet, there is no proof of either criteria applying to any of the stars.

If this were a case of deceptive advertising such as the infamous 2011 Reebook Easy Tone shoes controversy — where the company sold shoes based on claims that they would provide extra tone and strength to leg and buttock muscles — one may be tempted to hold the celebrities involved responsible. This is an easy fact-checkable claim; all the celebrity has to do is use the product for a few months. Voila! truth will reveal itself, the star could be said to have intention to deceive. 

Chillax,  Bipasha isn't going to be found liable either. She endorsed the product in 2009, and the company only started settling claims by 2011. (But, you -- who fell for that misassformation -- may get your money back.)

This is not even similar to the Home Trade scam of 2002 in which Sachin Tendulkar, Hrithik Roshan and Shah Rukh Khan endorsed a company that created no products and scammed 1000s of crores of investor money. 

This is an issue with a food product, which we’ve all been using years before any of the three stars complained against began endorsing it. It is an issue that was only recently discovered by the Food Safety & Drug Administration in Uttar Pradesh.

There’s no doubt that having lead levels which are seven-times the permissible level in food which is marketed and sold to children is a serious matter. And if Maggi, or the endorsers had knowledge of this danger, they’re liable criminally, ethically, and morally. 

But as the law goes, that knowledge is key; and ignorance — in this case — can be bliss of the Bollywood trio. 

(These views above are my personal opinions, and do not represent - in any manner - the opinion of my employer, or media organisations association with me.)

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