Social media is a double-edged sword. It's transformed advertising positively - you don't need huge budgets or television to get your message across. As the fearless girl proved, a single statue built on Wall Street could travel through social media to carry its message across the world. But like every sword this one has a sharp negative edge too. Social media could destroy a campaign as easily. Deepika Padukone's Vogue campaign or the Pierce Brosnan Pan Bahar ad received more brickbats than likes - even forcing James Bond to apologise.
So how do you create communication in the time of Twitter? Here are some tips, a few of them learnt the hard way:
Keep it Real
I think social media has changed the way Indian advertising looks. If you remember, 10 years back, a large part of advertising was fake - glitzy and glamorous - but unbelievable. And we'd made rules for ourselves, like 'Let's not depict serious issues in advertising' or 'You can't show handicapped people in advertising'. Today, these rules have been broken. A mass brand like Red Label has tackled issues like Hindu-Muslim harmony and gender equality. The 'most seen' film on YouTube - the Samsung Service film has a blind protagonist, while handicaps, diseases and social causes have been tackled regularly by brands like Dabur ('Brave') and Ariel ('Share The Load'). And it's not a co-incidence that this change has accompanied the advent of social media. Today most communication is consumed on phones. What else do we consume on our phone? Social media - WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube. What if a friend was faking it on FB - acting cool - you'd just tell him to 'stop the natak!', right? People react similarly to advertising. If it's not based in reality they'll probably thrash it. I believe that's what the issue with Pan Bahar was; far beyond Pierce Brosnan promoting a bad habit, it wasn't believable that he'd chew paan masala. Obviously, not all advertising needs to be based in reality, you could rely on humour or glitz for a particular brand if that's the right thing to do.
Keep it honest, don't try too hard
Whatever you portray - reality, humour, glamour - it needs to come naturally to your brand. This is probably the reason Deepika's Vogue ads were panned. I felt they didn't seem to come from the brand and sounded like someone mouthing what's expected. If you're trying to use a social cause just for your own good, you'll be found out. And punished for it. This isn't about just social causes. If you want to be glamorous or funny, go ahead, as long as you can carry it off. Rest assured, you'll be ridiculed if you can't.
Don't try to be perfect - The consumer doesn't expect you to be
As brands, we are scared to say anything negative or self-effacing. But I've learnt that honesty is always appreciated. People will believe your strengths more if you accept your faults. Years back, at Ogilvy, we worked on a campaign called 'Surprisingly SBI' for State Bank Of India. When we were briefed that SBI had the maximum number of ATMs, etc., we didn't believe it ourselves. We made that the crux of the campaign. The commercials showed people losing bets because they didn't believe the same about SBI. And people believed us - they liked the fact that we were honest and admitted it was 'surprising'. It's probably the only campaign that won the Grand Prix at the Abbys and the Effies. Similarly, when Cadbury went through to a worm infestation issue, they didn't deny it - in fact, Amitabh Bachchan spoke for the brand and accepted its mistakes... reason why the brand came back stronger. On the other hand, if you deny the truth or get defensive, you're sure to get panned on social media.
Go With Your Gut
Eventually, your conscience needs to be clear. You need to truly believe that this piece of communication is not causing any harm. You need to put yourself in the consumers' shoes and ask, 'Is this going to offend them?' If the answer to that is yes, shelve the campaign. Listen to people around you without being defensive. If someone in your team raises an issue, take it seriously. Don't be obsessed with releasing the creative. Listen to everybody, but at the end of the day listen to your gut. When the 'Laugh At Death' idea was first presented, the room was a divided house. There were some who felt that joking about death was in bad taste. I felt that if terminally ill patients themselves made fun of their own impending death, it couldn't be taken negatively. We went ahead with the campaign. And there was not one negative comment. In fact, the wave of positive engagement made us trend on Twitter, FB and YouTube and gave us free PR worth crores, including coverage by BBC London.
Ignore Twits. And Twitter
While we should be conscious of social media you can't create great advertising if you're scared of what people are going to say. You have to keep only the brand's interest in mind. If it's right for the brand, if your conscience is clear, go ahead. Rest assured there WILL be people who have issues with anything you do. There are ads I've loved like the Vicks Eunuch commercial but I've seen enough negative comments on it too. I remember there was a fun ad we'd done which showed a stammering guy (Not Nescafe). And we got sued by an association for stammerers. I strongly believed that the ad had no semblance to reality and was to be taken as a joke. I personally felt the association was taking it wrongly. This was before social media. Given the same brief and given that the ramifications would be worse with social media, I would yet go ahead with the ad, as my conscience is clear.
PS: I did check this column a couple of times to make sure I wouldn't get panned on social media for it. Fingers crossed.
(The author is Managing Partner and CCO, What's your problem and CCO, Medulla Communications.)