Ubaid Zargar
Points of View

Is there a silver lining to the grey 'troll cloud'?

Brands often fall prey to consumer backlash on account of controversial advertisements. But is there a marketing bright side to bad publicity? We asked industry experts to share their perspectives.

Throughout its history, the advertisement industry has produced numerous creative works that have made their mark in our memories. Be it a melodious jingle or a trademark dancing ritual, ad films have boasted them all. But every once in a while, some advertisements make a name for themselves - just not in a good way.

Brands have banked heavily on the way they present themselves to the consumers. And why shouldn't they? It is a competition, after all. But what happens when your aim to target an audience backfires? Well, the industry has seen a lot of those as well. As we write this, Nirma is under fire for its portrayal of Maratha warriors in a new ad film. The video presents the legendary warriors in a somewhat comic light - enough to get on some bad consumer nerves.

A still from Nirma's ad film
A still from Nirma's ad film

Not so long ago, Red Label came under fire for its ad film titled 'Lost'. The film showcased a father-son duo visiting the Kumbh Mela, where the son tries to abandon his father, only to stumble upon a thought provoking sight.

Surf Excel, in its attempt to showcase communal harmony and unity, managed to get consumers all riled up for allegedly promoting 'Love Jihad' with this ad film.

While many such instances could be mentioned here, the list would be out of the scope of this article. But the underlying premise is substantiated – while brands may intend to present a certain idea, it could be construed as something offensive by consumers. But then, there is a saying in the advertisement and marketing realm, 'There is no such thing as bad publicity' – a statement often associated with Phineas T. Barnum, a 19th century American showman. So, while the mishaps of 'bad' advertisements are prevalent, it remains to be explored if the consequent backlash from consumers does any eventual good. Or, in other words, is there a silver lining to the grey 'troll cloud'?

We reached out to industry experts to get their perspectives on this.

Krishnarao Buddha, senior category head, Parle Products

Is there a silver lining to the grey 'troll cloud'?

I doubt if there is a silver lining. The evolution of digital media has made trolling a lot easier. And it is mostly done for negative publicity. For instance, the new controversy around Deepika Padukone's film Chhapaak has seen hordes of people trolling the movie, and it has become the talk of the town. Objectively, the movie would have been a nice representation of the event, but somehow it has ended up noting up negative publicity. So, social media and digital platforms have made it much easier for people to express themselves. Generally, people have a very critical point of view. About 90 per cent of such incidents are negative. Creative agencies have to be extremely careful of what they are doing with the particular brand. Last year, Surf Excel came up with a creative for 'daag achhe hain' that featured a little boy and a girl celebrating Holi. People took offence at this ad, along communal lines. This has made a marketer's job that bit more difficult, so much so that they have to go out of their way to think of any possible consequences for their communication. Consumer backlash leads to constraints on creativity. And when honest, sincere creatives see unjustified backlash, the creative progress is halted.

Shan Jain, chief strategy officer, Madison Media

Is there a silver lining to the grey 'troll cloud'?

Negative publicity does not always have a silver lining and can cause either potentially devastating or positive consequences to a company, brand or person, depending on various factors.

For a celebrity hungry for the spotlight at all times, any publicity is good publicity. For a small brand, negative publicity can raise product awareness amongst a group of people who may not know about the small brand but are interested in the topic that yielded negative publicity. Again, negative publicity works well in the case of controversial topics, which may appeal to some, but not to others – When Nike supported the NFL player, Colin Kaepernick, it had major fan backlash from Nike users but others rose to the brand’s support and rushed to Kaepernick’s defence. Whether consumers were for or against Nike, it’s clear that Kaepernick’s inclusion has led to increased media exposure — roughly $43 million worth, for Nike.

On the other hand, negative publicity is not so good for trusted brands, where the breach of trust or the negative news has a human values impact. For instance - Facebook suffered a loss of 1.5 million users and a failed acceptance of the Libra cryptocurrency they were about to launch. Or for that matter, Tiger Woods who still doesn’t have a league to his name. Negative publicity also doesn’t work in food items. When a rumour that your hamburger at McDonald’s uses worm meat spreads, sales drop by more than 25 per cent, or if a worm is found in a Cadbury’s chocolate, sales drop substantially and immediately. When Maggi noodles was banned in India due to excessive lead and alleged mislabelling over flavour enhancer MSG, it could never regain its dominant market share.

As Winston Churchill once said, “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” That is the ‘advantage’ or ‘disadvantage’ with negative publicity.

Shubhojit Sengupta, executive creative director, Enormous Brands

Is there a silver lining to the grey 'troll cloud'?

Trolls can never be a sustainable source for any sort of positive publicity! People can talk about it or share it in frenzy but it won’t put the brand on higher ground. The marketers should not worry about trolls as long as they are confident about their communication. A creative should not be given a watertight compartment to tell a story just to be safe. It's a double edged sword which no one can avoid.