Bournvita Ultimatum

Related read— Bournvita: Tayyari crisis ki (4 mistakes by Bournvita that led to the mishandling of this reputational crisis).

The Indian Government is considering two kinds of regulations when it comes to the health of the Indian people.

The Department of Consumer Affairs will soon make it mandatory for online influencers promoting health and wellness products to disclose their qualifications for dispensing advice.

This rule is for influencers who promote products or services in the health and wellness space. That is, influencers who dispense pro-brand, buying advice in exchange for cash/freebies.

Hold on to the thought while I address the second regulation mentioned in the first sentence.

On the other hand, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), India’s food safety regulator is in talks with companies to include a “cautionary warning” on the amount of added salt, sugar, and fat in the front labeling of packaged foods to help consumers make informed choices.

To quote the Economic Times piece: “There should be some kind of cautionary warning to indicate how much (of a particular item) can be consumed in one day,” the official cited earlier said, requesting not to be named. The “cautionary warning” could be similar to the disclaimers on the front-of-pack of liquor bottles, he said.”

I had written about front-of-label warnings after seeing them in action in food products in Sri Lanka, and on the back of Nestle voluntarily using such labels on their products, in Europe.

Both these regulations are under consideration, though. The rules for online influencers in the health and wellness space are very, very new, though it looks like they may come into force much faster than the FSSAI rule that has been in talks for a very, very long time.

Now, let’s get to the intersection of both these intended regulations: What about influencers who warn people against harmful products or ingredients in health and wellness products – that is, influencers who do not get any money, but share advice in the interest of the health of people? They may be doing this because the brands themselves have either been silent about the long-term harm caused by the use of sugar, salt, or fat in the products or were just waiting for the Government to notify rules, like the FSSAI plan.

That is one way to consider what social media influencer Revant Himatsingka did recently.

Revant, who goes by the handle ‘Food Pharmer’ on Instagram, with over 128K followers, posted a video on April 1, 2023, where he criticized Cadbury’s Bournvita for ‘miscommunicating’ on its package about the health drink’s ‘nutritional value’. He spoke about how the back of the pack has fine print about the ‘nutritional’ element of the drink, while the front makes tall claims intended to attract parents (much like the way the brand advertises).

To be sure, Cadbury’s Bournvita is not alone in this front vs. back game – we could easily add every other so-called ‘health’ drink to this list – Boost, Complan, Horlicks, Milo, etc. It so happened that Revant picked one brand to make this point about sugar addiction caused by such products.

On April 9th, Bournvita posted, on its Instagram handle, a clarification, almost as if in response to Revant’s post. Reason? Because Revant’s video had gone truly viral, with over 12 million views, and was shared by many celebrities too.

Bournvita’s clarification explained that the ingredients they use are legally approved for use, that they declare all ingredients on the pack, and that the product has ‘enjoyed the love and trust of consumers for over seven decades’.

But, besides the clarification, Cadbury’s Bournvita also did something else to control the supposed damage caused by the viral video from Revant – they sent him a cease and desist legal notice too!

So, it was no wonder Revant took down his video and offered an apology to the brand, in an Instagram update on April 14th.

Now, let’s go back to the first of the two regulations I referred to in the first sentence of this post – the Department of Consumer Affairs’ rule for online influencers in the health and wellness space.

What is the proposed rule? That the influencers should disclose their qualifications for dispensing advice. This was obviously meant for influencers who sell products or services, but let us consider Revant’s qualifications anyway.

You may look him up on LinkedIn anyway, but observe the qualification that seems relevant: “Certified health coach”. I wish he had added more details about this, though. (An earlier version of Revant’s relevant certification that I took a screenshot of yesterday—16th April—has been updated on his LinkedIn profile. The one above is the updated version).

So I assume, at the very basic, Revant is perhaps at least mildly qualified to offer his opinion about the supposed harm caused by a ‘health’ drink, based on what the brand chooses to disclose on the front and back of the pack… for seven decades, if I may add.

Now, if you look at the now-deleted viral video, you may notice some exaggerated claims by Revant (like “Colour – 150C – which is a caramel color that is known for causing cancer and reducing immunity”) that stretch the claim to make it sensationalist.

But the overall point being made around the front-of-pack claims vs. back-of-pack ingredients, and such ingredients being incongruent to ‘health’ (at least in the long-term) is no secret at all.

I can completely understand why Revant decided to delete the video and apologize. A legal notice from a corporate behemoth like Cadbury is not worth fighting against, particularly by an individual. It’s considerably simpler to capitulate than be all righteous about it given the sheer power imbalance involved. That, plus some of the exaggerated claims made by him puts him on the back foot instantly.

As for Cadbury’s stand in managing this reputational crisis, what they did first, by offering a clarification, was quite appropriate and needed. The truth is their first and best defense, provided they have a compelling truth to counter Revant’s claims. If they had focused on the facts and called out specific exaggerations of Revant, their clarification would have been discussed in sync with Revant’s viral video.

But the brand also decided to shut Revant through a legal notice. Such intimidatory tactics don’t always go down well and result in what we call the ‘Streisand effect’ (attempts to hide, remove, or censor information can lead to the unintended consequence of increasing awareness of that information). Understandably, there are a LOT more people sharing Revant’s original video now, along with news reports of a ‘health influencer being sued by Bournvita’.

So, what Bournvita wanted to shut down now proliferates even more wildly, with added vehemence, on the internet.

However, this episode also offers an interesting nuance around proposed Government regulations intended to protect the health of Indians. While the influencer in question here seemingly has at least some nominal qualification to dispense advice, he is silenced by a large corporation that hasn’t been regulated by the Government yet. Ideally, the corporate should be asked by the Government to tone down the front-of-pack exaggeration and mention, in simple, human language.

But while the Government dithers on this corporate regulation (something even a tiny neighboring country like Sri Lanka has already managed to enforce) and focuses on regulating influencers who promote health-related products (because it is possibly an easier target to go after than large corporates with massive financial might, both individually, and collectively), an influencer who wants to generate awareness (for all the right reasons) gets shut down by the same corporate that should be reined in.

The end result of this episode is that the corporate gets to continue what they are doing, but the one who wanted to raise awareness is shut down. The end result should ideally be about the health of Indians, but that seems to have been forgotten in this crossfire.