One of my colleagues from an automobile title posed a question lurking on many of our minds, to an ad veteran who visited our office recently. Search online for ‘Salman Khan + Audi’ and you will possibly guess the question. Or even ‘Audi’ seems to suffice.
The star was on stage with the Audi RS7 the previous evening, and newspapers screamed loud that he became the first Indian to buy the car for Rs 1.28 crore. Some even ran a headline that attributed to him a comment that the vehicle was ‘the common man’s car too’. Upon reading the details under some of those gems, you realised that he had said the vehicle was ‘for the common man who wants to be uncommon’. Never mind. Unless of course, you have some time on hand.
The question posed, thankfully, had nothing to do with the ‘common man’ who wants to be ‘uncommon’. It had to do with the brand choosing to drive into the market with the Bollywood icon, given the hit-and-run case he was involved in, back in 2002. The verdict for which, is still to be decided. What happens to the brand if the verdict goes against Khan? Will the association backfire on Audi? Those were the questions.
I’m not a lawyer; nor am I familiar with the case. So forgive me for putting this out as an option if seems unpalatable. Scenario one: Salman Khan is declared innocent. The question of damage to the brand image does not arise.
Let’s take scenario two. It’s quite possible that after the trial proceeds to completion on the case, Khan gets away with a two-year term, which essentially means it did not involve ‘culpable homicide’. Or, as the laws go according to media reports, he will get a much longer term, to the tune of 10 years. In either scenario, the headlines will scream ‘Dabangg Khan driven to jail’ or some such thing. The excitement will last for a couple of days or weeks. Or a couple of months – especially if he chooses to get out on bail once in a while during the possible jail term.
So what will happen to brand Audi if Salman Khan goes to jail for the hit-and-run? Will consumers hold something against the brand for associating with him? Not really, would be my guess.
For one, the Audi customer who has followed the case closely, would perhaps be aware that it was not an Audi in which the hit-and-run happened. Secondly, and more importantly, this Khan has undergone a drastic transformation from brat of the film frat to the man with a heart of gold in public perception. Whether or not this perception has been consciously shaped by a communication strategy, we can’t say for sure. But everything he has done in the last few years, has added to this perception. He is the Dabangg cop who is ever ready to help, the charming host in the Bigg Boss house, and the man behind a humane and noble movement called ‘Being Human’.
The trial for the hit-and-run case, according to media reports, had commenced in 2006. Much of what is chronicled on the official website of ‘Being Human’ has happened post that. Not that one is suggesting that the whole ‘Being Human’ movement is a PR exercise; even if it were, it is doing good things for those who need help. So it must be saluted - one senses that people are doing just that.
For each time the court proceedings get amplified in the news media, there is a positive surge of news and visibility; in the form of movies, public appearances and TV shows that the audience is happy to hungrily lap up. This also explains why brands show no hesitance in associating with him, including as brand ambassador.
The Indian audience acknowledges that accidents happen. Even if it was under the influence of alcohol, they can be extremely forgiving. They will want justice to be delivered, but it seems far-fetched to imagine that they would not boost the TRPs of the show or weekend collections when Khan unveils his next avatar. Why would one even think that they would hold it against a brand that picks the star as endorser, then?
A big healer to the damage caused to the reputation of this Khan, is the time lapsed between the incident and now. Too much has happened in the interim, for the intensity of angst to remain amongst the consuming public. Because of which, Indian audiences can also be highly forgetful of news events of this kind. What helps is that there is another star and another scandal to follow.
What has helped Salman Khan, meanwhile, is that he has remained human – and visibly so.
(This article was first published in January 2014.)
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