Wednesday, April 24, 2024
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Brands are increasingly using “fake news” tactics to garner attention in the digital world, with the latest example last week, featuring Indian actor Anushka Sharma and Puma. Last Monday, Sharma called out Puma India on social media for using her picture without her permission to promote its End of Season Sale (EOSS), drawing anger and creating waves amongst her followers and supporters. The following day, Puma revealed the social media exchange was staged, having signed Sharma as a brand ambassador.

“That was lame marketing tactics. You literally gaslighted your followers,” wrote a netizen in the comment section, with others commenting different opinions, like, “excellent marketing strategy through a fake conflict”, and, “whether it’s a movie or advertising nobody can overact like Anushka.”

Hindustan Unilever’s dishwashing detergent brand, Vim, used a similar tactic in a recent ad campaign, featuring Milind Soman as the face of a “limited edition” product called Vim Black for men. The ad was accompanied by a purchase link, which showed the product as sold out, causing confusion among consumers.

Harshil Karia, founder of digital marketing agency Schbang, commented that in a digital-first world, it is important for brands to use “shock and awe” to gain the interest of consumers. Karia said: “For a few categories it works well where core audiences get dry humour and the buying [target group] already has a predisposition to stand up specials and the like. Thus, I imagine, works well for a brand like Puma. For more mass categories where the audience’s definition of humour is more Kapil Sharma-esque (which is why he’s the highest rated show), the taste of humour is slightly different and hence it may not land in terms of effort put in and buck invested”.

Bengaluru-based communications strategy consultant Karthik Srinivasan gave further context to the trend, tracing it back to a Shah Rukh Khan tweet promoting his film “Fan” in 2015. Srinivasan said: “Before social media, such gimmicks where people are first shown something incredulous and then later told that it was just a marketing promotion were performed on mainstream media”. He gave examples of Lux floating a fake audio file featuring Sreesanth professing his love for Priyanka Chopra, and Pond’s making Malaika Arora and Arbaaz Khan announce their separation, only to reunite because of a Pond’s product. Srinivasan added: “…but in those cases, the mainstream media ‘leaked’ the fake news and they published it, leading people to believe fake news. Now, with social media, the brands ask celebs to share the fake news on their social media timelines where their other posts co-exist, including those where they share their honest feelings, emotions, and thoughts. That makes this entire exercise dangerous – it’s one thing for celebs to promote a brand on their timelines, but entirely different to share something patently fake for the same of the promotion, losing their credibility.”

While some may see these tactics as a form of “shockvertising” or a way to grab attention in a distracted digital world, others are concerned about the potential ethical implications of tricking consumers. Media personality and cricket expert Harsha Bhogle faced backlash earlier this year when he faked a kidnapping in an Instagram Live video, causing concern among his followers before backtracking to an apology. In a more recent example, recruitment website Monster got hundreds of employees to fake their resignations on LinkedIn as part of a rebranding exercise, causing confusion among their connections.

It remains to be seen how effective these types of stunts are in the long run, and whether or not consumers will begin to grow tired of feeling tricked by brands. As Karthik Srinivasan noted, “the question that brands need to ask themselves is: is it worth it? Is it worth the effort and the money to create a fake news to promote a product or service, and then clarify that it was a promotional activity? Is it worth the risk of losing consumer trust and damaging the brand reputation?” Only time will tell if brands will continue to use these tactics, or if they will opt for more transparent and authentic marketing approaches.

On a different note, Shreya Sachdev, head of marketing at Puma, refuted criticism, saying “Consumers today are well-versed with how marketing works in the digital age, and hence we have largely received positive feedback for our launch. That being said, a good campaign is always subject to some extent of polarizing and will inevitably start a conversation.” She further explained that, “timing is always critical when it comes to campaigns such as these. We kept just a few hours of gap between Anushka’s first story on social media and our follow-up post, at a point when the sentiment was focused on intrigue and confusion. As a result, our post was met with a barrage of positive comments appreciating the marketing genius of the campaign.”

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