The most star-smitten brand of modern times was surely Lux soap. Lux started as ‘Sunlight Flakes’, a laundry soap in 1899. However by 1925, it had become the first mass-market toilet soap in the world. Positioned as ‘Beauty Soap of the Film Stars’, Lux went on to engage the most beautiful film stars of that era as its brand ambassadors.
The list includes Sandra Dee, Diana Rigg, Samantha Eggar, Audrey Hepburn, Cyd Charisse, Debbie Reynolds, Kim Novak, Doris Day, Barbara Rush and goes on to extend up to Sophia Loren, Raquel Welch and Cheryl Ladd. In India too, Lux was the ‘Filmi Sitaron ka Saundrya Sabun’ and was endorsed in the early 1900s by the incredibly beautiful Leela Chitnis. In the 1960s/70s/80s and onwards, Lux was promoted by almost all the leading ladies of Hindi cinema: Sharmila Tagore, Hema Malini, Parveen Babi, Sridevi, Madhuri Dixit, Rani Mukerji, Aishwarya Rai, Katrina Kaif, Amisha Patel, Kareena Kapoor, Asin, Deepika Padukone and Alia Bhatt. There was also an exception to the rule of having only women endorsing the brand. Surprising as it may sound, Lux also used Shahrukh Khan as its brand ambassador amongst this bevy of beautiful ladies!
The galaxy of film stars
While Lux may have monopolised most of the female superstars, starting with Leela Chitnis, the endorsement scene in India only hotted up in the 1970s. Dev Anand of course featured in an ad for the National Party in the 1960s but neither he nor any of his peers like Raj Kapoor or Dilip Kumar ever endorsed brands. The first visible campaign from the 1970s featuring a major star was for Fabina suitings which was endorsed by the then No. 1 superstar Rajesh Khanna. This was perhaps Khanna’s only endorsement at the peak of his career. Amitabh Bachchan who shot to fame in the early 1970s graced the advertising for Bombay Dyeing. Deepak Parashar meanwhile appeared in ads for Vimal suitings and Suresh Oberoi was seen in ads for Morarjee Mills. Jackie Shroff, in the late 70s, appeared in the Binny campaign. Suitings as a category was obviously seeking good-looking faces.
Almost at the same time, the debonair Vinod Khanna featured in a very visible and famous endorsement for Cinthol soaps. As India warmed up to celebrity endorsers, brands were even willing to take a few risks: Cinthol also featured the handsome Pakistan cricket captain, Imran Khan, in its advertising, which to say the least was quite adventurous because India has always had an overhang of an anti-Pakistan sentiment. But Imran Khan was very popular as the Cinthol man. Imran Khan also appeared briefly in an ad for Thums Up in the early 1980s.
The super-duper-blockbuster Bobby hit the screens in 1973. In the movie, young Rishi Kapoor was seen riding a special edition mini-Rajdoot motorbike which popularly started to be called the ‘Bobby’ bike. There was no endorsement campaign outside the movie, but the in-film placement of the bike with the teen hero Rishi was enough to catapult the brand to instant success.
The first cricketer best remembered as an endorsee for a brand in India was surely the good looking wicket-keeper Farokh Engineer who featured in the advertising for Brylcreem in the 1970s. Sunil Gavaskar of course appeared for many seasons as the Dinesh suitings brand ambassador. He also appeared in Thums Up advertising alongside Ravi Shastri and Sandeep Patil. The famous all-rounder Eknath Solkar only got to endorse an almost unknown brand, Philip bicycles. It was already the mid 80s by the time Kapil Dev came on to sell Boost.
A celebrity face was all that brands wanted in that era of innocence. Film baddie Amjad Khan, best known for his role as Gabbar Singh, endorsed Britannia’s Glucose-D biscuits for many years. Villain Prem Chopra was surprisingly the face of Vaseline! Wonder why. The most popular nautch dancer of her times, Helen, was included in the elite line-up of Lux endorsees. Intriguing, but true.
Mithun Chakraborty remained for a long time the face of National televisions and VCRs, imported from Japan.
Cigarettes were a popular genre for celebrity endorsers. Jackie Shroff appeared for Charminar, Raj Babbar featured for Red & White while a very young Akshay Kumar also appeared for Red & White. Meanwhile, an ageing Shatrughan Sinha lent himself to Bagpiper Whisky. Actually, Jackie Shroff was also a Bagpiper endorsee. He was quite popular with brands. He also advertised Savage after shave and even sold Cadbury’s drinking chocolate.
Actress Rekha was also quite in demand. While she was a Lux model, she also appeared in advertising for Lakme cosmetics. But endorsees obviously did not care much for the brands they advertised: Rekha even appeared in advertising for a brand called Cock matches! Ek Duje Ke Liye star Rati Agnihotri also appeared in an endorsement campaign for Thril, a soft drink. Miss India Swaroop Sampat opened up new markets for the humble ‘bindi’, as the brand ambassador for Shingar. But there does not seem to have been much more activity in that space in the 70s and 80s.
The opening of the Indian economy, and the arrival of global brands, opened up the flood gates for celebrities in the 1990s. Therefrom, there was no looking back.
(Sandeep Goyal is a PhD in celebrity advertising. He has done a lot of research over the years on how brands embraced and used celebrities to sell dreams.)