China Makes Celebrity Spokespeople Liable for Unsafe Food

04/21/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In the West, celebrity spokespeople need to worry about their bad behavior, lest they lose their endorsement deals. In China, celebrities need to start worrying about the things they're endorsing.

Prompted by a slew of food safety scandals, the Chinese parliament has passed a sweeping food safety law that makes liable public personalities who endorse questionable products.

In China, where a celebrity's imprimatur means a lot -- even if their advertising slogans aren't to be trusted -- it could be a highly productive move.

Redefining the Meaning of "Eating Problem"
This isn't China's first backlash against celebrity endorsements. In 2007 laws were passed banning healthcare professionals and public figures like movie stars or pop singers from appearing in advertisements for drugs or nutritional supplements. A spokesperson stated at the time: "A celebrity appearing in drug advertising is more likely to mislead consumers, therefore, the state must consider controlling medical advertisements and strengthen the management of national celebrities appearing in medical advertisements."

But as with many laws and central government efforts, the law wasn't followed by all television stations. "According to some medical advertisements still on TV," reported Xinhua, "people might have slim figures by taking a pair of shoes or a pair of trousers, or wash off their freckle with certain cleanser. The advertisements even claim that the cleanser could wash off the color of gold fish."

Personal lawsuits have also become a common, if ineffective, tool to protest celebrity endorsements. Last year, a Beijing resident sued film director Feng Xiaogang over advertisements he did for a new "luxury" housing development in Beijing. The resident discovered that his new apartment in the complex was not exactly "the successful person's choice," as Feng had claimed on TV. As Danwei reported, the suit rejected his claims.

Larger Problems
Celebrities are only the sexiest aspect of the food safety problem: inefficient and ineffective regulation, governed by a mix of regulatory bodies. Given China's 200 million farmers and 500,000 food production companies, preventing accidents will require more transparency, wide scrutiny and stronger enforcement.

No stranger to the topic, Feng Xiaogang recently argued as much at a panel discussion before the annual meeting of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), of which he is a member, according to Xinhua.

"If stars should shoulder joint liability, then quality inspection agencies and media which publicize the ads should be held liable, too," said the outspoken director, who directed "The Banquet" and "The Assembly".

Feng said most stars would ask for quality safe certification before agreeing to recommend the products. "If we cannot trust certification from the authorities, who can we trust?"

In response, Zhang Ming, secretary-general of the Beijing Consumer Association, said that if celebrities are worried about liability, they should simply stop endorsing products.

Read the rest at TreeHugger