Cancel culture, brand bias: Why celebs stay silent on uncomfortable issues

Taking a stand can also create sense of authenticity, build goodwill, say brand experts

Anushka Bhardwaj New Delhi
Wrestlers protest

Wrestlers Bajrang Punia, Vinesh Phogat, Sakshi Malik and Sangita Phogat address the media amid their protest against Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) chief Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh

As the protest against Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) President Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh over alleged sexual misconduct enters its fourth week, people continue to stand in solidarity with top Indian wrestlers at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar. However, social media, with hashtags like #istandwithmychampions, #arrestbrijbhushan, #nationwithbbss and #supportbrijbhushan, also indicates the polarisation over the issue.
While the voice of people, including farmer groups, local wrestling communities and opposition parties, is widely heard, big names from fraternities like sports and entertainment continue to remain silent. Despite requests from ace wrestler Vinesh Phogat, who, along with Olympic medallists Sakshi Malik and Bajrang Punia, is leading the protest, very few recognisable names have publicly lent their support to the wrestlers. The ones who have include India’s ‘golden boy’ Neeraj Chopra, tennis star Sania Mirza, women hockey team’s Rani Rampal, boxer Nikhat Zareen, and Olympic gold medallist Abhinav Bindra. Cricketers Harbhajan Singh and Kapil Dev tweeted in support after Phogat’s appeal. Indian actors, including Sonu Sood, Prakash Raj, Swara Bhaskar and Gauahar Khan, have come out in support.

Mahavir Singh Phogat, the father of medal-winning wrestlers, the Phogat sisters, has expressed his disappointment, particularly over the silence of Bollywood actor Aamir Khan. Khan had played Mahavir Singh Phogat in the biopic “Dangal”.
Brand experts say there are reasons not many celebrities stick their necks out and take a stand on controversial issues in India. There are visible past instances wherein celebrities had to pay the price for being vocal about sensitive subjects.

Bollywood actor Deepika Padukone, for instance, was extensively trolled for visiting Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in 2020 and standing in support of students protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act. Earlier in 2016, actor Aamir Khan’s contract as the brand ambassador of Incredible India wasn’t renewed after he said that intolerance was on the rise in the country.
“Celebrities are often considered trendsetters and influencers, and their public image plays a crucial role in shaping public opinion and consumer behaviour,” says Mohsin Khan, founder and CEO of Celewish Media, a celebrity meet-and-greet platform.

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What they say or do can affect brand endorsements, fan engagement, or even demand reputation management, adds Khan.
At times the fallout of being socially vocal is lost brand deals, distasteful comments, boycotts or even violent attacks on their films.

Public reaction also depends upon the issue on the radar. “Public presence that unites a vast section of the audience has a positive impact. But when it polarises the audience very sharply, it can have a detrimental impact on brand value,” says Nisha Sampath of Bright Angles Consulting. 
Anvarul Hasan Annu, co-founder and chief operating officer of Celewish, thinks that potential impact should be considered. “Celebrities should be prepared for both positive and negative repercussions,” says Annu, who’s also an actor. He adds, “The impact on demand depends on the nature of the issue, public sentiment, and the authenticity and alignment of the celebrity's stance with their personal brand.”

Explaining the possible reason for celebrity silence on emotive issues, business and brand-strategy expert Harish Bijoor says, “They like to carry their entire sets of fans together. Therefore, they remain neutral.”

Other side of the coin

It’s not all negative, though. “When celebrities take a stand on social or political issues that align with their personal values, it can create a sense of authenticity and connection with their fans,” says Annu.
He adds that the increased visibility and impact on public discourse can contribute to the celebrity's brand value and attract new fans.

It can also be seen as a goodwill-building exercise, impacting the brand value of the celebrities. “A positive public appearance can help rebuild or reinforce a positive image after a scandal or negative publicity,” says Khan.
However, with ‘cancel culture’ on the rise, brands prefer to keep it safe. “Taking a political or social stance could well have a positive impact on the celebrity’s personal brand equity and their draw at the box office. But that is a risk that they take for themselves. A brand might not be willing to take that risk,” says Sampath.

That said, brands utilise the social stance of celebrities if it fits with their value system and image.
“For the longest time, Serena Williams was a champion of young black girls entering sports. Hence, brands targeting this demographic wanted to work with her,” adds Sampath, adding “Brands value consistency of stance in a celebrity over time because this creates a certain image. A celebrity who speaks up [for one issue] but keeps taking up different issues can be perceived as unpredictable.”

First Published: May 18 2023 | 2:06 PM IST

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