Goodwill shunting

This UNICEF goodwill ambassador is brought to you by...

Published: Sunday 15 May 2005

celebrity endorsement is tricky business, and there is an old debate about its use. But it gets trickier when the endorsement is meant to serve a larger public good. The United Nations Children's Fund (unicef) has, for long, used goodwill ambassadors. Here is how the organisation explains this: " unicef 's celebrities have a wide range of talents and achievements, but they all share a commitment to improving the lives of children worldwide. And in each case a celebrity's association with unicef comes about because he or she has already demonstrated that commitment... Celebrities attract attention, so they are in a position to focus the world's eyes on the needs of children... They can make direct representations to those with the power to effect change."

unicef recently included Indian film actor Amitabh Bachchan as its international ambassador. Bachchan responded with customary tact: "I am extremely pleased to accept this responsibility. I hope that by adding my voice to the cause of children, it will make a difference in the lives of boys and girls here at home and across the region." The deep timbre of his voice resonated.

The same deep timbre, so committed, appears in the polio immunisation campaign. But he, and that mellifluous voice, also appear to push all manner of brands, from Nerolac and Cadbury and Pepsi. Children have a special place in advertising campaigns, and one only needs to switch on tv to see the value of childhood to commerce. Carbonated soft drinks are no exception. Now c ola companies have been at the centre of a heated debate in recent times in India. One aspect of this is the health effects of the carbonated drinks -- physicians widely recommend that the acidic, sugary and now, increasingly, caffeine-laced character of carbonated drinks can only be bad for children. Another side to this discussion is the non-priced withdrawal of groundwater by c ola companies in areas that see water shortages. That also means water denied to poor families (and their children).

How much goodwill can unicef extract out of a junk food-advertising celebrity? How will it ensure the fame it plans to use isn't, instead, merely making use of unicef to garner more crass cultural capital?

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