Are brands overdoing social experiments?

Chitra Narayanan | Updated on April 04, 2021

Conveying important messages: Ad from Axis Bank

They make great points, but why do we feel they are not real but scripted?


Among the hundreds of campaigns that bombarded our screens this International Women’s Day, a couple stood out — because of their different formats. Both the Paytm and Axis Bank ads were social experiments.

In the Paytm ad, 30 people — men and women of different age groups — are gathered in a hall and they play a game. The participants are lined up next to each other, and questions are thrown at them. If they can answer ‘yes’, then they take a step forward; if not, a step backward. When the questions end, the gap between men and women is very wide, as the men have moved forward but the women are behind. And what were these questions? They were all to do with money management. The ad called ‘The Divide’, created by Dentsu Impact, went viral as it starkly brought home the financial literacy gap.

Axis Bank’s ad ‘Bill in the Middle’ is a social experiment set in a restaurant. The film shows three different tables, and each of them has a woman in charge of selecting the dishes and placing the order with the restaurant staff — yet, when the bill arrives it is handed to the man. Though delivering an important message, it didn’t really create the impact of the Paytm film.

Mind the gap: Ad from Paytm


Ever since Dove launched its Real Beauty Sketches social experiment nearly a decade ago, and got feted and awarded for the clutter-breaking ad, many brands have tried the social experiment route — with mixed results.

Remember Brooke Bond’s social experiment with a free tea kiosk at a railway station, where commuters would walk in but could not choose the person who would share the table with them? The film shows a lady who is an insurance agent thrown together with a call girl. Or Benetton’s United by Hope social experiment, where accessories associated with different religions are handed to small children. Or the Ponds “jhappi” van social experiment on International Hugs Day. There have been too many such ads of late to cite.

But what worked for Dove, and also P&G for its impactful “Like a Girl” social experiment for its menstrual hygiene brand Always, has not really worked for many others. The reasons are varied. Some look scripted and not real. Others are opportunistically aligned to a day.

As Ambi Parameswaran, veteran adman and currently a brand coach and brand strategist, says, “Efforts to commemorate woman’s day or teacher’s day or Valentine’s Day are just one-off gambles. If they are not aligned with the overall brand vision mission, it is just good money down the drain.” For Dove and P&G there was a strong alignment for sure, and a body of consistent work.

Parameswaran also feels that the plethora of social experiments we are seeing now could also be just agencies and brand managers trying to make an ‘award worthy’ ad. “Only the rare video goes viral. And only a few among them build long-term brand equity,” he agrees.

D Ramakrishna, or Ramki, as he is popularly known, the founder and creative boss of Cartwheel, is not greatly enthused by social experiments either. As he points out, “My main issue with all these pieces of work is they seem staged, scripted, or outright fake to varying degrees. Which is a pity because they are all trying to make important points. There are ways to make these not just ‘look real’ but actually even ‘be real’.”

Ramki also despairs at marketers and agencies following templates and formats. And social experiments are now becoming rather formatted. That said, Ramki says, “it’s important that we find new ways of engaging with our audience, and these are new ways. I only wish we all wouldn’t zig at the same time.”

The unanimous advice from brand experts: If you are doing social experiments, let real people talk, let real voices be heard. As Ramki puts it, “I do believe that real people may come up with better ‘real’ lines than copywriters.”

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Published on March 21, 2021
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