So PV Sindhu won her second Olympics medal, a Bronze. That’s great. The Prime Minister, I am told will treat her to ice-cream when they meet. The whole of India is celebrating Sindhu’s victory.
Also celebrating, and congratulating her in much laudatory terms are many brands: Aditya Birla Group, Apollo Hospitals, Happydent, Pan Bahar and Vicks, among others. But PV Sindhu, or actually her marketing agent Baseline Ventures, does not want these brands to congratulate her. So Sindhu, through Baseline is said to be preparing legal notices to all the brands that put out congratulatory ads on her Olympics victory – that too for Rs. 5 crores each!
But why is Sindhu being so cussed and annoying? What is wrong with saying 'congratulations'?
Well, Sindhu is angry at various brands that habitually insert themselves into trending moments, which are already generating a lot of conversation, to gain some traction for themselves. Many of them have put out 'creative' social media posts ostensibly praising and lauding Sindhu, but in real effect, are using her fame and name for their commercial benefit. So, Sindhu is planning to sue them.
Is this controversy a new one? Not really. The same Baseline Ventures, who also happen to be the agents for Prithvi Shaw, threatened to sue various brands three years ago when Shaw scored his first Test hundred and social media was flooded with congratulatory messages.
Baseline chose to go on the offensive against Swiggy and Freecharge. Within hours of the appearance of these tweets, back then, both Swiggy and Freecharge were served ‘cease and desist’ notices by Baseline Ventures, seeking compensation of Rs. 1 crore from each of them for allegedly ‘cashing in on the name and fame’ of Prithvi Shaw without his authorisation. The notice to Swiggy went on to say, “by way of such misleading advertisement using player’s name, you are deceiving the general public to order food from Swiggy, thereby making illicit gains.”
The notice further elaborated that, “The blatant unlawful commercial use of the name of the Player shows your mala fide intention and deliberate effort, solely calculated to misrepresent the consumers that there is some sort of connection or association with the player and thereby, in this manner, to derive unlawful and undue gains from such acts of passing of and dilution”. The lawyers for Baseline invoked Section 27 of the Trademark Act for the ‘cease and desist' notice. They also referred to Sections 481 (using a false property mark), 482 (punishment for using a false property mark) and 483 (counterfeiting a property mark used by another of the Indian Penal Code (IPC)) to strengthen their notice.
To me, the Baseline legal notice even then was just a PR gimmick. It is so now too. A cheap ruse to gain headlines and gain visibility. Frankly trademark infringement could only have happened if Prithvi Shaw already had a trademark on either his name, his image or a certain gesture, which had been patented or registered previously. It is not that it has not been done by others.
Olympic long-distance runner Mo Farah registered his distinctive ‘Mobot' symbol in 2012. Usain Bolt too registered his signature ‘lightning bolt’ celebration pose, one of the most iconic images ever in athletics history. Young Shaw, or in this case PV Sindhu, need to officially register such personal and unique nuances, before an infringement of trademarks can be alleged or effected on his or her image rights.
Which brings us to the conduct of the brands in this whole business of ‘moment marketing’. When Yuvraj Singh retired, over a hundred brands saluted him. He never objected as he knew this was his last hurrah.
But is ‘moment marketing’ really ethical?
- As long as it is just a ‘congratulations’, and a company or brand logo, one cannot and should not object to brands using the ‘moment’ aperture – after all it is the cumulative fame of fan-love and brand adulation that creates the celebrities.
- But if brands start to get creative, use brand themes, brand slogans and brand imagery in conjunction with the celebrity, then it starts to get into the unethical domain. Even in the current Aditya Birla creative for PV Sindhu, there is nothing really objectionable; but the Happydent ‘batisi’ narrative does try to benefit from the celebrity being congratulated.
- A clear set of guidelines from the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) would help discipline brands and ensure that they don’t over-step.
- Digital agencies of brands should be penalised if they flout the guidelines. There are far too many young adventurers in the digital game who think there are no limits on the net.
- Concurrently celebs need to learn that IP that they want protected first needs to be registered for trademarks. Companies like Baseline are good at rabble-rousing but don’t actually do their own homework for their clients. Sometimes, such gimmicks can backfire.
For now, PV Sindhu needs to savour her victory. Enjoy the adulation. Soak in her fame. And tell Baseline to pipe down, and lay off.
Dr. Sandeep Goyal is managing director of Rediffusion.
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