Malala Ad Haunts Ogilvy

By Ashwini Gangal and Satrajit Sen , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Advertising | May 16, 2014
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A series of ads created by Ogilvy for mattress brand Kurl-On, draws serious criticism from global netizens and the international media. One of the ads dramatises the shooting of Malala Yousafzai. Her cartoon image is shown getting shot and then bouncing back to life after a good night's rest on her Kurl-On mattress.

How does a tribute turn into a mockery within hours? Ask Ogilvy. A series of ads created by the agency for Kurl-On, a homegrown mattress brand, highlights the product proposition of bouncy beds by graphically punning on the way real life heroes - Mahatma Gandhi, Steve Jobs and Malala Yousafzai - have bounced back in life after major setbacks.

The campaign, especially the ad based on Malala, who survived a gunshot fired by a religious extremist group a couple of years back, has been booed online. The metaphor used in the campaign, and its graphic representation (read: Malala's blood), hasn't gone down well with social media users and the international press.

Print Ad based on Steve Jobs

Print Ad based on Malala Yousafzai

Print Ad based on Mahatma Gandhi

New York-headquartered called the ad "gory" and UK-based Telegraph said "Malala Yousafzai being shot in the face by Taliban is now a jokey advert for mattresses."

Speaking of press, though the ads appear to be part of a print campaign, they are, after all, 'unpublished'. Websites that have, well, published these creatives, cite Ogilvy & Mather as the agency behind them.

afaqs! tried reaching the agency's bosses yesterday afternoon, only to be thrown into a corporate loop. When contacted, Abhijit Avasthi, NCD, Ogilvy India, said he was not the right person to speak to about this, and directed us to Hephzibah Pathak, president of Ogilvy Mumbai, who was busy when reached. We then reached out to Sumanto Chattopadhyay, ECD, Ogilvy India, who directed us to ECD Joonoo Simon, whose name tops the credit list for this campaign; he chose not to comment. Finally, by late evening, the official spokesperson of Ogilvy India responded to a mail we had sent out earlier in the day.

In its statement, O&M India said it regrets this incident and wants to personally apologise to Malala and her family. "We are investigating how our standards were compromised in this case and will take whatever corrective action is necessary. We have launched a thorough review of our approval and oversight processes across our global network to help ensure that our standards are never compromised again," the note said.

Interestingly, the statement makes no mention of the other two ads, featuring cartoon versions of Steve Jobs and Mahatma Gandhi, and apologises not for the campaign, but only for the Malala ad.

Recall that last year, three equally controversial posters for Ford Figo were released on (a website on which agencies are known to upload unpublished work), leading to the firing of JWT's Bobby Pawar and Ford India's Sriram Padmanabhan.

All of this begs the question - what in the world is an unpublished ad in the era of social media and digital wildfires?

'Unpublished' - new word for Scam?

So what is unpublished work? Is it work that has not been paid for by the advertiser, not published on the medium it was originally created for, but has somehow been leaked onto the internet? Well, if it is released on a free, public forum like a website and has garnered a reaction from people across geographies, then for all intents and purposes, it is an advertisement - the product has been advertised. Or shall we say, publicised?

To Manosh Sengupta, founder of brand@itude, a brand consultancy, using unpaid media and then claiming that the work is unpublished is a "ruse". "Anything that is placed on a forum that can be consumed by the public, is 'published' material. Being free has nothing to do with it. If that were so, I can post anything on Facebook and claim it was 'unpublished' if someone takes offence," he argues.

Lakshmipathy Bhat, director, CodeConclave, a mobile marketing firm, believes the argument of the ads being 'unreleased' doesn't hold true in the age of social media. "Once out on any of the aggregator websites, an ad is as good as officially released," he asserts, reminding us that these days, a lot of brands release YouTube campaigns in a move to fetch some earned media.

Prabhakar Mundkur, director, business strategy, Percept, says, "Unreleased ads are - unreleased ads. Or, they are released once in a low cost medium to qualify for the purpose of winning awards."

Talking about a seemingly new breed of poster/print ads that go viral towards the end of each year, Mundkur adds, "I'm glad the ads were not released. They are in very poor taste." He thinks the Indian creative community "is developing a mercenary approach to creative awards - do anything as long there's a chance to win."

To Tinu Cherian Abraham, digital media professional and Wikipedian, this comes across as a desperate attempt to create ads that bear a high propensity of going viral. "No publicity is bad publicity, they say," he comments, showing us the silver lining for Kurl-On. While there's no denying the attention such campaigns garner, he says agencies ought to be mindful about not hurting anyone's social/cultural sentiments in the bargain.

Malala Mess - Creative after all?

Surfers, bloggers and reporters have had their say. What do Indian ad-folk think of the Kurl-On campaign? Do they think these ads are insensitive?

"No, absolutely not," states Bodhisatwa Dasgupta, creative director, Grey. He feels that sometimes, to make a point, you have to push a few boundaries and break a few rules. "People have begun to take offence at the smallest of things," grumbles.

Using real life people and their stories for ad campaigns seems to be turning into a risky option for brands these days; though such ads tend to be high-impact, they're the ones that get bashed the most.

Anupama Ramaswamy, group creative director, Cheil India, says, "I don't think the ads are frivolous or trivialise these people. However, the Malala ad doesn't seem like a part of the same campaign. It looks and feels completely out of place."

The last two years, she recounts, haven't been kind to the advertising industry. "It looks like people cannot take a joke; every ad is scrutinised under a microscope."

The only issue Ramaswamy has with such campaigns is that people are increasingly doing it to gain attention. "Does this idea really need a famous person?" she questions, "If not, then why use them?"

The idea, she reasons, is about how a good night's sleep helps you bounce back. "This whole interpretation of being thrown out, going through the lows of life and then a mattress helping you become successful, is just a bit too stretched," she critiques, saying it could have been done in a simpler manner. For example, by showing how a good night's rest after a long day equips you to face yet another such day.

Aditya Jaishankar, national planning head, Percept/H, concurs, "Portraying laymen might have made it more relatable. Also, by choosing to show revered leaders and revolutionaries, they are being insensitive. Executionally speaking, he feels the ads are "unnecessarily complicated" referring to the multiple images in each ad.

Well, if there's anything to be learnt from the Malala ad, it is that the internet and social networking sites have changed the rules of media completely. One has to be very careful about what goes out of the office - because once it's out there, it's impossible to retract.

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