Namah Chawla & Akshit Pushkarna
Points of View

Why is kindling controversy through deceptive marketing tactics the new rage for brands?

Recently, a viral video showed Ranbir Kapoor throwing a fan’s phone, which later turned out to be a part of OPPO’s campaign.

Over the weekend, Bollywood actor Ranbir Kapoor’s video, where he was seen snatching a fan’s phone and throwing it, was trending on social media. The fan was just trying to click a selfie with the actor. Following the incident, netizens started calling Kapoor ‘arrogant’ and ‘foul’.

However, it was later revealed that the video was a part of smartphone brand OPPO’s ad for its Reno series. Kapoor is the series’ brand ambassador. The full video shows Kapoor gifting a smartphone to the fan at the end.

It must be mentioned that the video was first shared by Indian paparazzi Viral Bhayani with a caption, "Celebrities should think twice before acting on impulse like #Ranbirkapoor did today." Bhayani has over 92K followers on Twitter and 4.9 million on Instagram. The initial post was posted as an organic post. More people were likely to see the first post than the ad reveal. The video was also shared by media outlets like Free Press Journal, Bollywood Now, Mid Day, Times Now, NDTV and OpIndia with a similar caption.

The Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) has not received any complaint so far. Manisha Kapoor, ASCI’s CEO and secretary general, informed, “ASCI has not received any complaint so far. Should we receive one, it will go through its set process, whereby we will ask the advertiser to provide an explanation and take the same to a jury.”

This is not the only example where a brand has tried to create a controversy first, before launching a campaign. A month back, Puma India used photographs of actress Anushka Sharma. It later turned out to be a part of a drama that ended with her being announced as the sportswear brand’s ambassador.

In December 2022, Hindustan Unilever’s dishwashing brand Vim released a campaign for Vim Black - a dishwashing liquid designed for men. The campaign did not sit well with the audience.

The brand later clarified that the campaign was a ‘joke’ and it ‘was not serious’ about Vim Black. 

Do such campaigns put the brands and their endorsers in poor light? With the Ministry of Consumer Affairs releasing stricter endorsement guidelines, do influencers and celebrities need to exercise caution before indulging in such campaigns? Can such stunts push the brand’s TG (especially the younger ones) away from it?

Some experts feel that ‘bad publicity is better than no publicity’ does not work when it comes to building a brand. Others say that such campaigns are able to successfully leverage the right amount of PR to generate a conversation for the brand.

afaqs! spoke to three experts to know what they think of this marketing strategy. Here is what they had to say.

Edited excerpts:

Sai Ganesh, brand consultant, and former marketing head, Dunzo

Many brands leverage PR to generate a conversation around a campaign. This campaign is also generating a conversation and, with media coverage, it becomes memorable.

OPPO has played it smart. Most brands aspire to launch campaigns that are talked about in the media. I also saw a lot of influencers talking about this. Whether Ranbir is arrogant or what, I am pretty sure they were paid to do so. This is all by design. PR is now a big channel for organic traffic. It provides a great boost to the campaign.

Why is kindling controversy through deceptive marketing tactics the new rage for brands?

The brand showed a common moment with celebrities, who get swamped by fans and paparazzi. Recently, there has been a huge hike in the paparazzi content genre on social media. People are fascinated by it and the numbers speak for themselves. Something like this has not been done by any brand before. That is why it is garnering massive discussion.

Nisha Sampath, managing partner, Bright Angles Consulting

Even if you do not lose trust, you incur the risk of inviting ridicule and public backlash against your brand. We saw that happen with Vim Black, even though the brand had good intentions.

OPPO is a challenger and can take a chance. But Puma is a respected, established brand, and the Anushka stunt did not align in any way with its global positioning. Rather, it threw shade on the values and ethics of the business, which should not have happened.

Why is kindling controversy through deceptive marketing tactics the new rage for brands?

The dictum that ‘bad publicity is better than no publicity’ does not really work when it comes to building a brand. I feel that type of thinking is outdated. Brand custodians should resist from sacrificing the long-term brand building goals for tactical gains.

It is surprising when influencers agree to do such campaigns, because personal reputation is quite fragile. The influencer loses much more, as compared to the brand. After all, a brand’s job is to sell itself, but the influencer’s main job is not to sell the brand.

There is enough evidence to show that young people are fed up of lies and cynical about the role of paid influencers. They are increasingly demanding that brands should show authenticity. That they should stand up for real issues. Building an image on social media platforms is about being consistent, rather than opportunistic.

If brands learn from these cultural cues, they will stay away from gimmicks and earn consumers’ trust.

Artthi Ponnuswamy, vice president, brand solutions, Zensciences

The brand’s equity is built over a period of time and, unless something drastic happens, it will not be eroded by just one campaign. In the short-term, the impact can be positive or negative, but it does not impact the brand's equity over the long-term.

In this particular case (OPPO), the brand ambassador’s reputation was more at stake than that of the brand. In fact, the brand came out looking good because of the gifting stunt. 

Why is kindling controversy through deceptive marketing tactics the new rage for brands?

This kind of campaign is akin to walking a tightrope. Brands need to find a balance of acceptable controversy and the right brand placement. Therein lies the key to whether the brand will lose trust amongst its followers or not. 

If such campaigns are acceptable to the brand and consumers, why should the influencers/celebrities not be a part of it? They are just another medium to reach the brand’s followers and the disclaimer is already a part of the influencer’s post.

So, it is up to the consumers on how they want to react to it. The celebrities will also have to tread carefully, weighing the pros and cons before they decide to be a part of such campaigns. 

The younger audience is lot more evolved than we give them credit for. They do not get offended by such campaigns. On the contrary, they may see such campaigns and consider the brand to be uber cool.

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