Shockvertising – a means by which brands startle and offend audiences – is not new. But most people felt Poonam Pandey’s fake death stunt violated all norms and heavily critiqued it. So much so that digital agency Schbang, which was involved in the campaign, took to Instagram on Saturday night to apologise. At the same time, it defended its campaign stating that it resulted in making “Cervical Cancer” and related terms one of the most searched topics on Google.

In a social media post, Schbang said,”Yes, we were involved in the initiative for Poonam Pandey to spread awareness about Cervical Cancer in collaboration with Hauterrfly…” Stating that it was a “pro-bono activity”, the agency said, “While we regret any distress caused, if the move results in spreading much needed awareness and preventing death, that would be its real impact.”

Morbid marketing

Marketing experts were divided on the tactics employed. Business and brand strategy specialist Harish Bijoor said, “Don’t play with death or its news. The subject is serious. The subject is morbid . Marketing must not get morbid. Attempts such as this give advertising, PR, digital and marketing a bad name.”

On the other hand, Jessie Paul, CEO, Paul Writer said, “The campaign definitely created awareness for cervical cancer. A more tasteful, sensitive approach is unlikely to have delivered the same impact on the same budget. Since this is cause marketing and not a commercial product, there is no fallout on the brand. Greenpeace and PETA have used shock tactics for years and they continue to succeed. I think it is a good result for the cause and for the agency. Poonam Pandey risks being branded as the fake death person and losing credibility and fans.”

Renuka Kamath, Professor of Marketing, SPJIMR, also pointed out that use of such tactics to draw attention is not new. But in this case she said the combination of the celebrity used (an individual with a checkered public profile), and the content was unpalatable. “Instead of feeling a sense of relief, which it should have been, practically everyone reacted to it as though invaded, at the reveal! This is risky. Death is a serious matter,” Kamath said.

Denting credibility

In recent months, there have been instances of celebs such as Dulquer Salmaan and Harsha Bhogle besides radio station Fever FM using similar tactics of faking news for promotions.

“In the future, we should be prepared for more such blatant content that teases our sensibilities to stand out in the clutter and rush to catch eyeballs. But the matter of the heart may be different, and such campaigns may well dent credibility, making society absorb such news in the future with cold-hearted emotions,” Kamath added.