Creative marketing in the digital age: How far is too far?

Marketing lessons from the Poonam Pandey episode

Vivek Sharma

[In a marketing stunt, Poonam Pandey's team had claimed the actress had died of cervical cancer. Photo of Poonam Pandey from Bollywood Hungama, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.]

The news: A few weeks ago, Poonam Pandey, a mini celebrity, pretended to die and come back to life in a pro-bono stunt to raise awareness about cervical cancer. The stunt was done by the social media agency Schbang for an online site, Hauterfly, which is a sister company of the influencer management firm representing Pandey. The client’s connection to this stunt was nowhere in sight though Schbang represented Merck Sharp & Dohme (MSD), the Indian affiliate of US drug giant Merck. Soon after, MSD terminated its association with Schbang on the grounds of ‘conflict of interest’. So, MSD maintained an arm’s length with this stunt. You can read Mahesh Murthy’s post on LinkedIn, where he traces the linkages.

The Poonam Pandey cervical cancer publicity stunt backfired. People were up in arms over misuse of social media and a blatant manipulation of their emotions; they expressed their disapproval at the insensitivity about something as serious as death risk posed by cervical cancer. To my mind, it raises a few questions for the marketing industry—the blatant use of PR stunts to garner eyeballs, the negatives of social media usage, and taking ownership of such marketing failures. The Poonam Pandey episode isn’t the only such stunt. In the past, there was the Arbaaz-Malaika staged divorce gimmick in 2008 to launch a new skincare product by a multi-national company, where they ‘remarried’ their ‘improved’ partners; Harsha Bhogle’s fake kidnapping, among others.

Now, pushing creative boundaries is one thing. Brands operate in a highly cluttered and competitive environment where consumers have very short attention spans. To stay relevant, brands need to be in the constant gaze and attention of consumers, and stay on their timelines on Facebook, Instagram and X through interesting content.

Brands hire digital agencies for the job and give targets for x number of posts per week, reach (read eyeballs) and engagement (read attention). Agencies are under constant pressure to deliver on these targets through interesting creatives, memes, and events—or manufacture events like it happened in the Poonam Pandey or Harsha Bhogle case. Unlike the traditional mediums of TV, print and radio, digital is ‘always on’ and eyeball opportunities have to be captured fast and on the go. Hence the constant need to push creative boundaries and create brand content that gets immediate attention. It is a legitimate task. And this is the nature of the beast of marketing in digital age.

But, how far should brands push creative boundaries? And what can they do to ensure the narrative doesn’t run away in unwanted directions? The Poonam Pandey-cervical cancer episode is in a series of many others earlier, and raises a few questions for the marketing industry:

  1. How far is too far? How do brands decide the subjects they associate with?
  2. A brand works with many influencers. How should it choose influencers (if one can call Poonam Pandey that) to associate with, especially for events/occasion marketing?
  3. What should be the governance for approving creatives in the digital age?
  4. Who is ultimately responsible for failures, especially disasters like this—or success—of digital creatives?

1. How far should brands push creative boundaries? How do they decide the subjects they associate with?

Brands always look for topics of interest to create curiosity and pique the interest of consumers to engage them. Thus, starting from predictable brand-category subjects, they move on to associate with topics with wider appeal like events (cricket match, latest movie), themes of socio-public interest (sustainability, gender equality, diversity, secularism) or simply create a brand event (like baking a giant cake or a giant mural with thousands of photos of consumers). All kosher so far.

However, this creative push gets into grey areas when brands begin to associate with subjects that some consumers may not like for its socio-ethnic, political, or religious connotations. So, are brands free to associate with any theme under the sun, as they wish, within the boundaries of law? Brands may want to appeal to only a section of consumers and may be OK not pleasing everyone or displeasing some. And this is a subjective call.

Here, brands would do well to remember why they exist. That is, they exist to create and sustain business and are accountable to shareholders. Should they carry an over-arching purpose, above the brand commercial position, that appeals to a wider set of audience? Absolutely yes. Brands associate with larger causes aligned with their purpose and promote them. But can brand purpose begin to be the main reason for a brand to exist and communicate? Perhaps not. Especially today, with the world becoming highly woke and sensitive. The power of narrative is in the hands of consumers in the form of social media and a backlash of negative opinion or calls for boycott is just a few clicks away. Brands would need to be more sensitive to the environment in which they live and can be careful in pushing their creative boundaries. Brands need to be careful to not tread in potentially flammable areas like religion, casteism, sex or be downright insensitive like in the current incident or the Zomato ‘kachra’ ad.   

There are times when brands have to say no to creative ideas that are risky or simply inappropriate. A few years ago, there was a situation in Maharashtra politics with chief ministers changing frequently. Creative ideas were floated to relate the situation to the famous Fevicol ‘kursi’ ad; those creative ideas were declined because the brand decided to not associate with a potentially controversial political situation. Another example: When Neeraj Chopra won Olympics gold, brands were doing congratulatory ads and associating themselves with the event and the winner. Fevicol decided not to do such ads because it would have been inappropriate to indirectly associate with a celebrity without a commercial contract, and this turned out to be the right call because many brands that did such ads got legal notices from the celebrity for infringements.

I would say a brand would do well to stay away from sex, religion, and politics as these are incendiary subjects, unless the brand is dealing in these areas—say, a condom brand or a political party.

2. How should a brand choose influencers to associate with, especially for events/occasion marketing?

Influencers have a large following (read eyeballs) on social media, and brands pay them to post content about the brand to get more visibility and favourable consideration from the positive rub-off of their expertise (in fashion, food, automobiles, technology) or a special aspect of their personality (trust, youthfulness, wisdom). Now-a-days, there are all types of influencers available for brands to hire—specialists or generalists, big or medium or small in following (and ticket price).

The big influencers, that almost have a celebrity status, are selected with an oversight and/or involvement of senior people in the organisation. But hundreds of influencers are needed for digital campaigns, and their selection is left to the youngsters and agencies who often use algorithms and numbers to evaluate. Nothing wrong in this if the brand fit with influencers is proper.

For hiring influencers for special occasions and events, an oversight must exist from experienced senior people. Often, the pressure to get more eyeballs (read million views) leads to selecting an influencer who gets the publicity irrespective of fit with the brand or event, as in the Poonam Pandey case. So, brand gets the publicity, but it can also be negative publicity or an outright angry rejection. Just any publicity is not good publicity for a brand.

The failure of the Pandey episode shows on both counts—the choice of subject and the choice of celebrity/influencer. The subject (associate a serious issue of life risk due to cervical cancer with fake death) and the choice of celebrity, due to image associations related to Pandey’s past performances, were inappropriate.

I would say that the care and consideration normally exercised in choosing mega celebrities like movie stars and sportspersons should also be exercised to choosing influencers, especially for key events.

The moot question also is how effective are influencers for brands? Influencers are mostly evaluated in terms of quantitative numbers like views, engagement rates and cost, but a qualitative look is also necessary to check consumer emotions—brands can do that by listening to social media. It would be good to know what is the quality of engagement of influencers with the brand—is it neutral, positive, or negative? Is it indifferent or annoying or causing disappointment or anger, and does the emotion raised by the influencer align with the brand values and personality?

3. For brand organisations, what should be the governance for approving creatives in the digital age?

Earlier, with fewer creatives being done in a year, it was possible for a chief marketing officer (CMO) or experienced senior people in organisations to have a personal oversight on creatives and approve them. However, today it is not possible for CMOs or senior experienced people to micromanage and approve all creatives. In the digital age, the sheer number of creatives needing approvals is huge, often running into hundreds in a week for multi-brand organisations. And there’s the related pressure to approve quickly within hours to be ‘always on’ in social media and take advantage of moment marketing. So, should these creative approvals be without any oversight from CMOs?

CMOs can decide which type of creatives they need to get involved with ‘fully’ (right from development to finished stage); which type of creatives they need to see ‘partly’ (only in the beginning and the end); and for which type of creative they ‘just need to see in finished form’ before release for ‘Go-No Go’. This would vary across companies with their varying number of creatives and associated regulatory risks (the regulatory risks are more in industries like pharma, alcohol, etc.).

It appears that in this case, the oversight from the senior people in the organisation was perhaps missing.

What worked for me was a simple system of being ‘fully’ involved in big TV commercials and print campaigns; being ‘partly’ involved in below-the-line campaigns and key audio-videos/reels; and ‘light-touch last minute look’ at all other digital creatives for just ‘Go-No Go’. This was done via a WhatsApp group system to maintain speed and light touch. It perhaps saved the brands some IP or consumer backlash risks.

Readers will remember Cristiano Ronaldo’s Coca-Cola snub and Fevicol turning it into a successful moment marketing post with ‘Na bottle hategi, na valuation ghategi’ with Fevicol packs on a similar looking media podium. This post was conceived by youngsters in the digital agency as soon as the incident happened, and it had to be approved and posted within a couple of hours of the trending incident to leverage it. The exchange and approval happened within a few hours on the WhatsApp group, and it went on to become one of the most viral moment marketing posts. Conversely, when the team wanted to do a post on the Avengers movie with the image of the hammer of Thor, the idea went back and forth in the same WhatsApp group for more than a day—a very long time in digital marketing—till the creative was clear of any potential IP related issues.

4. Who is ultimately responsible for failure, especially disasters like this, or success of digital creatives?

Both client and agency carry equal responsibility for failure or success of a campaign. Often, clients tend to take larger share of success and lesser share, sometimes zero, of failure. The agency often becomes a fall guy in failed campaigns. Though brands like Cadbury and Fevicol remain mostly successful with their campaigns because these clients share a genuine equal partnership with their agencies in creating brands and support them through successes as well as failures.

There are rare occasions when ads misfire. A few years back, Fevicol had done a creative digital post that said ‘Fevicol — Holi ke saath bhi, Holi ke baad bhi’ along with the colourful logo of LIC. The ad, though liked by consumers, was objected to by LIC. Fevicol, as a responsible brand, not only decided to withdraw the post but also communicated the same to LIC without leaning on the digital agency. In such cases, brands have to act decisively and responsibly without hemming and hawing.

In the present case, we see the agency was left alone to take accountability for the misfire.

I always supported agencies in both successes as well as failures. Responsible marketers always do that.

In sum, for me the marketing lessons from this episode lie in choosing brand subjects carefully and sensitively, having a governance mechanism to approve digital creatives and supporting agencies equally in failures as well as successes.

As for brands, they always need to push the creative boundaries to stay relevant and in the consumer gaze to succeed. But it should not come at “any cost”.


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About the author

Vivek Sharma
Vivek Sharma


Altivyst Advisors

Vivek is an independent marketing consultant with the vision of enabling organizations to drive sales acceleration through marketing excellence. He mentors many startups and is an angel investor in a few. He is passionate about marketing and sales and shares his knowledge and experience regularly at premier business schools through part-time teaching.

Vivek was the Chief Marketing Officer of Pidilite Industries Ltd. till March 2022. Here, he was responsible for marketing planning, implementation and brand development for all divisions, corporate brand, innovation and marketing talent development across the organization. Over seven years, Vivek steered brand and business growth across B2C, B2B verticals and further strengthened iconic brands like Fevicol, Fevikwik, Dr. Fixit, MSeal through insightful marketing campaigns.

Prior to Pidilite, Vivek was Vice President Indian sub-continent at Philips India Ltd. as Chief Marketing Officer & Head - Govt. Affairs. He built ‘ONE PHILIPS’ marketing planning and implementation for three Philip’s businesses viz. Consumer Lifestyle, Lighting and Healthcare. Vivek also led the engagement of company and businesses with various government, regulatory and industry bodies and enabled B2G sales. The combined role spread across B2C, B2B and B2G with a sharp focus on accelerating business growth.

Before Philips, Vivek was with MIRC Electronics Ltd. (ONIDA) as Vice President, Marketing, Sales and Service. At MIRC, he spearheaded the re-launch of the ONIDA brand across product categories.

An industry veteran with over 32 years of experience, he has held senior leadership positions across Ogilvy Advertising and Cadbury Kraft (now Mondelez). At Ogilvy, Vivek led the Hindustan Unilever (HUL) business nationally across functions and geographies. At Cadbury, he worked on various chocolate, confectionery and Milk Food Drink brands. Vivek carries a unique blend of business and brand development experience across FMCG, Healthcare, Lighting, Consumer Durables and home improvement, encompassing B2C, B2B and B2G.

He is sought for his views on brand and marketing dynamics for The Economic Times, The Times of India, BusinessWorld, Forbes, Pitch and The Strategist - Business Standard. Vivek has been active in industry forums like FICCI, CII and Assocham.

He is passionate about teaching and regularly delivers guest lectures at premier B-schools like IIMB, IIML, ISB, SPJIMR, IIMU, MICA, IIMR and IIMK.

Vivek holds a Post Graduate Diploma in Management from Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Bangalore and Bachelor of Technology from Indian School of Mines (now IIT, Dhanbad).

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