A fine line | The Financial Express

Giuseppe Meazza

Did Puma India’s latest marketing stunt really help the company create a positive buzz? The sports brand got embroiled in a “controversy” after actress Anushka Sharma called it out for “unauthorised” use of her pictures, an allegation which was reposted by her husband and ace cricketer Virat Kohli. It was eventually revealed this was part of an elaborate charade staged by the brand to announce its new ambassador.
While some social media users termed it “creative”, others thought it as “dishonest”and called the brand out for “gaslighting”. But Puma isn’t the only brand that used shock and awe on social media to create word of mouth. Earlier this month, dishwash soap brand Vim created an even bigger buzz after posting its satirical advertisement for “Vim Black” —  a “dishwash for men”.

“As long as these stunts are done to keep things fun, it’s fine,” says Sonya V Kapoor, founder of M5 Entertainment. “These campaigns tend to catch eyeballs but it’s a tightrope walk. Creative agencies must think it through.” The first thing to remember, gimmicks are not strategy and when misfired, they can actually harm a brand.

That said, “gimmick” marketing isn’t a new monkey. “I remember an advertisement by Lux around 2008, when the company ‘leaked’ an audio file to TV channels, which had former cricketer Sreesanth professing his ‘love’ for actress Priyanka Chopra. It instantly became news. After a week the brand revealed it was part of a marketing campaign,” says independent communications strategy consultant Karthik Srinivasan.
Around the same time, consumer brand Hindustan Unilever  spread the rumour that actors Arbaaz Khan and Malaika Arora were splitting up, only for it to turn out later that the “leak” was part of an advertising campaign for the relaunch of Ponds.

Drawing the line

So when do matters become grey? “Promotion for the movie Fan, starring Shah Rukh Khan, comes to mind. The actor had tweeted that a ‘crazy’ fan had defaced his property while he was out. It stirred up a lot of reactions among social media users, many of whom felt great rage for the offender. However, it turned out to be part of the promotion. You have one actor and one timeline on social media. What is real here and what is fake? It can be viewed as dishonest,” says Srinivasan.

Such efforts can also appear insensitive during difficult times. Take the case of job search website Monster.com. A few months ago, several of its employees posted on LinkedIn that they have had to quit their jobs. In the season of layoffs it generated a wave of emotions on social media. When these employees later posted that they had joined the rebranded “foundit”, there was a sense of relief among some but also outrage among many. Says Srinivasan, “This felt worse because here you’re not just talking about celebrities — it involves people like us and it is capable of stirring emotion and sympathy among many. It feels like deception.”

In Puma’s case, what can make matters complicated is that instances of celebrity images being used without permission are rampant. Shuttler PV Sindhu took 20 brands to court for using her name and image without her consent in 2021. That makes Anushka Sharma’s angst absolutely believable and the whole episode appear like a serious case of breach of advertising ethics, say experts.

“For me, it’s best to avoid gimmicks in marketing since marketing itself is considered a gimmick by a lot of people. Why would a marketer want to deepen that thought in the minds of the consumer,” asks brand strategy specialist Harish Bijoor.

Samit Sinha, founder and managing partner, Alchemist Brand Consulting, disagrees: “That we’re talking about these campaigns means they have some effect. The world is now talking about Vim, which exists in a so-called ‘boring’ category. Everyone now knows monster.com became ‘foundit’. In the case of Puma, I don’t think that it has done the brand any damage at all. Most people realised it was a stunt. It’s not wrong for the brand to have a little bit of fun.”  

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