Byju’s, Shah Rukh Khan, and accountability

India’s most valued start-up, Byju’s, has reportedly (according to ‘sources’) paused ads featuring Shah Rukh Khan, one of India’s most popular stars.

Why? Because Shah Rukh Khan’s son has been arrested by the Narcotics Control Bureau of India (under questionable circumstances, if I may add).

The prelude to the so-called pausing was a social media campaign (mainly on Twitter) that pointed out that Shah Rukh Khan, as a parent, has failed and hence cannot continue to be the brand ambassador of Byju’s anymore. Here is an indicative tweet to this effect, from Puri, Odisha.

The aftermath of this is unraveling now as Byju’s is being called a ‘wimp’ for choosing to pause the ads featuring Shah Rukh Khan.

Now, this ‘pausing’ ads business is a very, very standard operating procedure in marketing communication when something happens either to the brand itself or to its brand ambassadors.

The logic is really linear: brands are in the business of influencing your choice towards them.

If either the brand or a brand ambassador is in the news for not-so-favorable reasons, the brand’s marketing team would prefer to ‘lie low’. Why? Because the more people see paid marketing communication from the brand, or those featuring the brand ambassador, the assumption is that the not-so-favorable news would also be remembered by them in context.

The simple rationale: “We are spending money to be seen and preferred by people. Right now, the news about us (the brand)/our brand ambassador is not very favorable. So let us not spend our own money to remind people of the association (between the brand and the news) with the news voluntarily.”

However, this linear logic gets strained when you look at the nuances of the issue.

Was Shah Rukh Khan the one to be arrested? No.

Can you blame Shah Rukh Khan for his son’s arrest? No. Aryan is a major.

Is Shah Rukh Khan’s credentials as a well-known actor in question? Hardly. Most recently, he was featured in multiple campaigns for Disney Hotstar, among so many other brand campaigns.

For instance, LG does not seem to have any such plans since their festive campaign has been in full swing featuring not just Shah Rukh Khan, but his wife as well (both parents, for context).

Is Shah Rukh Khan’s credentials as a parent/father in question? That’s hardly our, or Byju’s, concern. Byju’s signed him up for his face value to get your attention. We, as the audience, have a choice: to be influenced by what we see and either buy into Byju’s claims or not.

Byju’s, by pausing the campaign, seems to be distancing itself from its brand ambassador only because he is in the news in not-so-favorable circumstances by association and not by his own deeds.

Does Byju’s fear that parents, its main target audience, would see the brand in poor light if they continue to feature Shah Rukh Khan in its marketing?

To answer that question, you need to ask how you, as a parent, see Shah Rukh Khan, in Byju’s ads (so far). Do you see him as a fellow parent, considering what is best for his own children, and suggesting it for your children too? Or, do you see him as a superstar using his broad appeal as a familiar face to make you consider an edtech product?

You know very well what the answer is 🙂 Shah Rukh Khan, to us normal mortals, is not a fellow parent. He is a star.

To be sure, the news of Byju’s pausing its ads featuring Shah Rukh Khan is based on ‘sources’ and not from the brand itself. The most recent ad by Byju’s featuring the star is still on its YouTube and Instagram channels.

If the brand wants to ‘lie low’ from a larger marketing communications point of view, or pause only those ads that feature the star, it’s a choice based on what they think is appropriate for the brand. It’s no different from the brand choosing Shah Rukh Khan in the first place and having gained tremendously from the association.

Brands don’t usually do things because they want to take a stand. Brands only take those ‘stands’ that are beneficial for their perception. This includes purpose-led stands that most brands take these days – the reason is less about what the ‘brand’ feels for the purpose and more about who the brand wants to impress for taking such a stand.

Similarly, if Byju’s is opting to pause ads featuring Shah Rukh Khan, it is a simple decision based on self-interest. Whether that decision is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ is something only the brand can decide. We users, consumers, audiences have other, practical ways to opine on that decision besides ranting on Twitter – with our attention and with our money.

But then, when we do that individually, on our own, it’s a personal decision. You can also talk about your decision and explain the rationale publicly. But when we do that as a campaign, inviting all and sundry to follow our stand, that becomes what we call cancel-culture.

What’s perhaps most interesting is the rigor we people put into holding brands accountable vs. the rigor we do not put to make our elected representatives accountable. The former is a choice – we can opt for brands or dump them, but the latter is not – we need to continue letting the errant elected representatives govern us, making new laws.

So it is entirely ironic that one ‘father’ is hounded and the brands that work with him are asked to drop him, while another ‘father’ who is also in the news for all the wrong reasons (far more graver reasons) continues to be the chief guest at an event by the Bureau of Police Research and Development.



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