Post Ola Micro and, industry opinions on social media backlash

MUMBAI:  The digital marketing era warrants brands, advertisers and creatives churn out advertisements that go viral. But they better toe the line very carefully in the process. The recently released campaign by Ola for its new super cheap Ola Micro service certainly had people talking online - but they weren’t talking about the things the company wanted to hear. Netizens by the thousands took to Twitter and Facebook to express how disgruntled they were with the TV spot which they found ‘sexist’. So much so, that the company had to take off the spot from TV.  A similar situation occurred in Kerala where a public hoarding by eCommerce giant spurred an angry agitation on the social networks.

While it isn’t the first time that people have expressed their displeasure over an ad film, seldom has public reaction gotten such a quick and effective response from the brands. The question these incidents raise is how are brands, creative agencies and planners to handle this new breed of trigger happy consumers who are armed with social media?

People have always discussed campaigns that leave a mark on them, while there were some that were praised, there were also a few that were criticised. With social media coming into the picture, the issue isn’t that people are expressing their view; more often these views are a knee jerk reaction rather than a well-considered opinion. “Everything has become like an instant poll if you ask me. An individual having an opinion over something can immediately share that, and several others with a similar voice can add to that. People have suddenly discovered that their voice too has power and they want to put it out in the public domain as much as they can. Sometimes it can be justified, but sometimes it is not,” opined Ogilvy and Mather creative director Sumanto Chattopadhyay. He however stressed the fact that brand communications have to be sensitive to consumers, “At the end of the day advertising exists to appeal a broad spectrum of people. So one has to take cognizance of that, especially now that people’s opinion is a part of the public domain almost instantaneously,” he expressed.

When asked, as a creative what his reaction would be if one of his own works was pulled down, Chattopadhyay quipped. “As a creative person when I do a piece of work I obviously believe in it, I stand by it. There is no negative intent in it. But I have to also keep in mind that as an agency, we work for a brand, so sometimes we have to respect public opinion and go with the call the brand is taking so that the brand doesn’t suffer.”

J. Walter Thompson Delhi managing partner and head Sanjeev Bhargava also advised creatives and agencies to tread carefully when it came to public opinion. “We are becoming a reasonably trigger happy nation when it comes to protesting now that we have the tools in our hand.  It started off with a political thing but now it’s transcending into the corporate world as well. At the same time, brands are getting increasingly sensitive about the chatter online as they have the measuring tools that gauge the impact of such negative comments online”.  

While Bhargava suggested that brands, advertisers and agencies be extra careful so as not to ruffle any feathers he admitted that this would affect the creative process to a certain extent. “It is hard to be politically correct and have the freedom of expression in creating something. There is a fine line between meaning well based on consumer insights etc., and at the same time hurt sentiments. For example in the case of Amazon’s #WeIndians campaign, things might not have triggered this way had Amazon not been a foreign company. So it’s hard to say what will offend someone or not. In this increasingly wired world, industry needs to be careful till this frenzy wears off.”

Bhargava cited an example of an old advertisement to add perspective, “Years back when Naukri’s Hari Sadu campaign came out, someone with the same name had filed a defamation case against the brand in court, saying his employees thought him to be a bad boss because of the ad. He lost the case. But in today’s day and age, that same person could make it go viral, as virality does not follow predictable metrics. He wouldn’t have needed a court of law.”

Since public backlash is easy to create in today’s day and age, how does an industry body, tasked to self-regulate and monitor such offensive ads, react to such the public opinion? ASCI’s secretary general Shweta Purandare said, “I agree that social media is a very powerful tool. In fact, ASCI has consistently paid heed to it and followed the chatter by being active on social networks. If there is a negative chatter about brands or a particular campaign, many times, unaware that ASCI exists, they vent their feelings on social media. One is if an advertiser listens to that and takes action on its own, and another is that we guide such consumers to register a complaint and then take it up as per ASCI’s policies”.

But there are also situations when a simple opinion may blow out of proportion and affect the brand. “Without taking any brand's name, I would mention that there was a case when a brand came under fire on the social media, but when the complaint was taken up in ASCI, it was found that the advertisement was not against the ASCI code. Apart from taking voluntary calls to pull down ads, which the brands are free to do, if brands want a fair hearing of their argument they can approach ASCI for a proper analysis,” Purandare asserted.

Whether it is right to target a brand over a cause or not, the fact remains that social media metrics matter to brands, and playing with public opinion is like playing with fire for them. And sometimes that means to bow down to public opinion and take off the ad at the cost of brand value.

Not to mention the fact that creatives are also taking risks with edgier brand communication to draw more eyeballs to themselves.  “We are seeing a positive move from a mundane to more strategic insightful work in the creative industry.  In process they work around the delicate edge of safe versus edgy communication. Sometimes with such creative push things do go haywire. But these few instances must not hinder the positive moment in creativity.  So, brands have to do what was expected – self-censor and self-discipline.  It is their responsibility that the ad does not discriminate or offend any sensitivities,” explained Intradia world, brand and marketing advisor, Sanjeev Kotnala.

“Brands always have two choices. If they feel they have really gone beyond the edge, they must withdraw. And they must do that gracefully with due apologies. If this is the strategic action, then it must be swift. The other option is they can stand by their communication and let the social media movement fizzle out,” he added.

Kotnala also advised that while finding a fine balance between edgy and offensive content maybe like walking on a tightrope. Brands and creatives can be on the safer side if they do a concept research to determine if the ad is offending.  “Surprisingly and unfortunately many forget to do so. It may then be possible to shoot or create an alternative flow which can be integrated as a part of the campaign to kill a reaction without compromising on communication.”

After all, brand value is created over time but it can be destroyed very fast. It can be protected with a swift response rather than silence, advises Kotnala in parting.

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