Epic Marketing Campaign Fails: The Tightrope Between Shock & Sensitivity

Recent campaign fiascos highlight the difficulty of blending bold creativity with authenticity and empathy, prompting industry experts to urge consumer-centric strategies in an era of heightened sensitivity

In recent times, marketing campaigns have pushed the boundaries of creativity, attempting to break through the clutter and capture the undivided attention of the modern consumer. However, in this digital age, some marketing campaigns backfired spectacularly, raising questions about the thin line between marketing, innovation and insensitivity.

The Worst Shockvertising?

One such recent infamous campaign was seen by model-turned-actor Poonam Pandey, who attempted to bring attention to cervical cancer by faking her own death. However, the use of a fabricated celebrity death hoax sparked concerns about misinformation, exploitation and the inadvertent potential for negative repercussions when addressing sensitive topics. Rather than achieving its intended goal of raising awareness, the misguided attempt faced widespread criticism for its insensitivity towards a serious health issue.

Piali Dasgupta, Senior VP of Marketing at Columbia Pacific Communities, emphasises the importance of avoiding tone-deaf communication. She notes, "Sometimes, the price that a brand pays for creating momentary shock value may not be worth the risk to reputation. Instead, a bit of empathy and common sense go a long way."

The campaign raised several questions on the insensitivity used to garner the attention of its audience with a 'death' prank. 

On the other hand, Sudeep Chawla, VP of Marketing at Pidilite reflects on such failures advising marketers to hyper-empathise with consumers. "Understanding the consumer inside-out will help prevent insensitive campaigns and will also help introspect and come back stronger in case a brand makes a mistake," he says.

Misjudging Audience

Similarly, food delivery giant Zomato ventured into risky territory with its 'Kachra Campaign', inspired by the Bollywood movie, 'Lagaan'. Intended to address food wastage and promote cleanliness, the campaign connected the term 'kachra' (waste) with a Dalit character from the movie, symbolically portraying him as 'garbage.' However, it backfired as users found it distasteful. The entire campaign came under intense scrutiny, with social media labelling the concept as casteist and insensitive.

Chawla underscores the significance of social media in brand-consumer dynamics, stating, "Being a part of the right kind of communities can help any brand remain grounded with their consumer’s realities. This should help build sufficient consumer empathy & avoid unnecessary controversies." He further suggests that marketers use social media as a listening tool, enabling them to gauge consumer sentiment in real time and conduct dipstick polls to test the waters before launching major campaigns.

Sexism in Advertising Humour

Another instance where campaigns were backlashed severely was of Layer'r Shot, a brand known for its fragrance products. The campaign faced backlash for a sexist campaign that used humour in poor taste. The ad depicted four boys in a supermarket, with one of them asking, "Hum chaar hain aur yeh ek, shot kaun lega?" The attempt at humour fell flat, causing outrage for perpetuating gender stereotypes. 

On such endeavours, Yatnesh Pandey, VP of Marketing at Greenply Industries stresses the need for authenticity and credibility in approach. He cites, "Any campaign is not just think-say-do but it’s think-say-feel before doing for the consumers."

The issue of inclusivity has also come to the forefront in the digital era, with consumers demanding representation and sensitivity in brand messaging. Social media platforms have become battlegrounds where consumers are voicing their opinions, holding brands accountable and demanding inclusivity in marketing strategies.

Dasgupta emphasises that inclusivity should be ingrained in a team’s culture, cautioning against token inclusivity. She asserts, "Inclusivity is about understanding the importance of representation of all kinds. If you show people from different backgrounds, professions, ethnicity, skin colour, sexual orientations and gender in your brand stories, only then can you expect share of wallet, voice, and mind from people from diverse backgrounds."

Impact on Brand Perception

Amidst these controversies, exists an overall brand perception and consumer trust in the long term, which becomes a critical point of concern for marketers. 

Chawla believes that consumers are forgiving if a brand owns up to its mistakes and takes corrective action. However, repeated controversies and a lack of accountability can erode consumer trust. He comments, "If a brand continues to create controversies and takes consumer’s trust for granted, it is quite obvious that consumers will be quite wary of placing their long-term trust in that brand."

Dasgupta echoes the sentiment, particularly emphasising the preferences of the Gen-Z consumer segment. With over 65 per cent of India's population below the age of 35, brands are in fierce competition to win the trust of this discerning generation. Dasgupta asserts, "Empathetic, real, authentic conversations and storytelling is key to gain their trust."

The intersection of creativity and sensitivity is where successful marketing campaigns thrive and brands that prioritise consumer trust and inclusivity are likely to emerge as long-term winners in the ever-changing world of marketing.