Pierce Brosnan's Pan Bahar row: Whose fault is it?

The star's public spat with the pan masala brand shows that both celebrities and brands need to do due diligence.

Controversy over a campaign for India's Pan Bahar starring Hollywood star Pierce Brosnan refuses to die down—with the company claiming that the actor knew what he was endorsing despite his claims that he did not.

Pan Bahar is a brand of pan masala, a concoction of nuts, seeds, herbs and spices that is most often chewed along with tobacco or betel leaf. There are claims it contains supari, which may be linked to cancer. The company has stated that its products do not contain tobacco or nicotine. However, Pan Bahar packaging does carry a statutory warning against the hazards of chewing pan masala.

The campaign, created by DDB Mudra and launched in early October, shows Brosnan fighting enemies with a tin of Pan Bahar. The ad ends with the tagline: ‘Pan Bahar, class never goes out of style’.

After the campaign launched, social-media users trolled Pan Bahar and the James Bond actor for promoting a potentially cancer-triggering product. A "distressed" Brosnan told People Magazine that he had done the ads believing that he was endorsing a teeth-whitening breath freshener. He also demanded the company remove his image from all its advertising.

"I would never have entered into an agreement to promote a product in India that is dangerous to one’s health," he told People. He also claimed the firm had "grossly manipulated" the campaign to imply that he was endorsing its entire product line.

"Having endured, in my own personal life, the loss of my first wife and daughter as well as numerous friends to cancer, I am fully committed to supporting women’s healthcare and research programmes that improve human health and alleviate suffering," People quoted him as saying.

The controversy raises important questions: Brand endorsers are responsible for the products they promote, and international stars need to be especially cautious about the categories and brands they choose to advertise.

"I think there are many questions that still need to be answered," said Sharif Rangnekar, chairman of Integral PR. "We don’t hear a word from the actor’s manager or even the advertising agency concerned. I also wonder why the endorser took so many days to respond to the outcry."

Rangnekar also questioned how Brosnan held a pack of Pan Bahar through an ad without reading the ingredients. "If the image of the product was morphed, then I guess he wouldn’t have known what he was holding," Rangnekar allowed.

According to Harish Bijoor, a brand consultant operating in India, brand endorsers need to understand the legal, social, economic, political and religious context in the country in question. "The onus of understanding this and conducting due diligence is on the endorser," Bijoor said. "To that extent, it is important to sign on the dotted line after a clear understanding on all counts."

The firm had picked Brosnan to create a premium image for the brand, and to help improve market share in the segment dominated by rival Ranjnigandha. Ads were launched on the front pages of all major newspapers and across television channels. 

"In this case, it is quite likely that the definition of a mouth-freshener might have misguided the star, because let’s remember that Pan Bahar could be defined as a mouth freshener, just like Tic Tac," Bijoor said.

Rangekar, however, warned celebrities to steer clear of tobacco and related products. "Celebrities need to be more responsible considering the influence they carry. I don’t think they should endorse such products."

A version of this story appeared first on Campaign Asia-Pacific.

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