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MUMBAI (Reuters Life!) - Bollywood stars may jostle for roles on the silver screen but they are also vying for other lucrative deals -- company endorsements -- with celebrity branding surging in India but fears the race is out of control.
In a rapidly expanding market, nothing makes a product stand out better than a familiar face and Bollywood stars can promote from 10 to 15 products a year, making $1 million plus from each deal which can far exceed their earnings from movies or TV shows.
Take Bollywood A-lister Amitabh Bachchan, one of India's biggest stars and the lord of endorsements. He has endorsed everything from a premium suit brand, India's largest selling auto brand, cement, cold cream, chocolates, to hair oil.
Shah Rukh Khan, another of India's top leading men, endorses Tag Heuer watches, Pepsi, a fairness cream and an hair oil.
A recent article by Indian magazine Open estimated these actors each earned about $30 million over five years in endorsements as brand ambassadors are seen as a good way to get high visibility in a short time in a huge, fragmented market.
But in one of the world's most competitive markets, big names are entering endorsement deals at such a rapid pace that critics say it is almost at random, with no thought to their image or the brand.
"Everyone just wants to make money. It's plain greed. Most Indian brand ambassadors look at it as a business, a short term thing," said Anirban Blah of Kwan Entertainment and marketing solutions, a firm that manages Bollywood stars Ranbir Kapoor and Genelia D'souza.
There was a time when cricketers and other sports stars starting notching up deals alongside actors but the tide has again shifted toward the stars of the big screen and television with the country obsessed with Bollywood and glamour.
The celebrity endorsement market in India is estimated to be worth about US$185 million a year with Bollywood stars last year accounting for 80 percent of endorsements on Indian television.
Sports stars took up just 15 percent of screen time, according to figures released by TAM Media Research.
"The kind of reach and aspirational quality that Bollywood actors and actresses will give you is unparalleled, especially in a cinema crazy nation like India. The minute they are associated with a brand, they give it credibility," says Rajnish Sahay, CEO of Percept Talent Management.
But brand consultants are starting to voice concerns that the rush to sign deals has become indiscriminate and, unlike in Hollywood, the stars are not really concerned about which products they are backing.
Kiran Khalap, co-founder of brand consultancy chlorophyll, said this practice could be "disastrous to the entire string of brands they are associated with," and end up hurting both the brand and the star.
"The more reckless (brand ambassadors) are in signing up, the faster they are sending the signal that they do not really stand for anything! They have no central belief in life," said Khalap.
Bachchan, 67, took on the role of brand ambassador for the Indian state of Gujarat this year not foreseeing a controversy.
But several groups, including sections of India's ruling Congress party, questioned Bachchan's association with Gujarat's right-wing Chief Minister Narendra Modi, who is accused of turning a blind eye to the 2002 riots in the state.
Blah said he now advises his clients to associate themselves with brands that may not be as prominent but are aspirational while companies are adding clauses into contracts that take into account behavior and extraordinary circumstances.
He cited actor Aamir Khan who is known to be extremely involved in his advertisements and is a rare example of a Bollywood star who has planned his brand image down to a tee.
Khan, star of the hit comedy "3 Idiots," broke the record for a celebrity endorsement earlier this year when he landed a Rs 300-350 million (US$6.5-$7.6 million) a year deal with Etisalat, the UAE telecoms giant, which has just entered the Indian market.
Most other Bollywood stars can bank about Rs 80-100 million (US$1.7-$2.2 million) a year for each endorsements.
Advertising guru Prahlad Kakkar said it was the brands' fault if they rushed to get a celebrity name that did not necessarily fit the product.
"Ultimately, it is the brand that suffers. But we are too lazy to think about brand values, whether a certain celebrity will suit those values or not, and the same goes for the endorser as well," he said.
Editing by Belinda Goldsmith