The association was ceased on the grounds of conflict of interest.
MSD, the Indian affiliate of US pharma company Merck, has terminated its partnership with digital marketing agency Schbang for being involved in actor and model Poonam Pandey’s controversial fake death publicity stunt.
The company manufactures the Gardasil vaccine, protecting against HPV strains causing cervical cancer. The action came as soon as the news of the publicity campaign broke. Some social media posts alleged that MSD was involved in the publicity stunt.
According to an article from the Economic Times, a spokesperson from MSD said that the association was ceased on the grounds of conflict of interest.
On February 6, venture capitalist Mahesh Murthy linked Schbang to Poonam Pandey and MSD's HPV vaccine in a LinkedIn post. He shared a link indicating the awareness campaign had amassed over 43 million YouTube views and was shared by numerous influencers.
Gardasil has been available in India since 2008. Gardasil 9, targeting nine HPV variants, is priced at Rs 10,850 per dose, while the quadrivalent Gardasil is offered at Rs 4,000 per dose.
On February 2, 2024, Pandey’s team announced that the model passed away due to cervical cancer. The next day, she revealed on Instagram that she was alive and had staged her death to spotlight cervical cancer awareness.
The actor collaborated with media company Hauterrfly for the campaign and Schbang was the agency behind executing the same. On February 3, the agency released an apology statement noting that the “act by Pandey” resulted in making cervical cancer and similar terms the most searched topics on Google, and according to the company, “this is the first time in the history of this country that the word ‘cervical cancer’ has been on over 1000 headlines.”
MSD rolled out the campaign #HPVsearchkiyakya in July 2022 aiming at educating the youth of India on HPV and HPV-related diseases. It collaborated with Bollywood actor Sara Ali Khan.