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Case Study: ...And Shocked Miss Muffet Away

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Nimki Bharucha read out three news snippets to Adrian D'sa, the MD of Speeder India, a sports goods company, and  Barrun Sarkar, its marketing manager: a) Ministers watching porn in state assembly; b) A 14-year-old may be charged with murder in baby Falak case; c) Tainted chief minister, who was removed, asks to be made chief minister again, and is granted his wish. "Use one word to express your reaction to each of these please," she said.

Barrun: a) Morons; b) Most unfair; c) Can't believe it.

Adrian: Okay, here we go: a) Not surprised; b) Losers; c) Disgusting.

Nimki: So you see, the news being the same, it impacts different people differently.

Adrian: Point made Nimki, but it is one thing when a shocking event happens, and quite another when you construct an event to deliver shock. So tell me, is ‘shock' an ingredient in the brand's personality? Or is it a vehicle to keep the brand afloat? Or is it an accessory to keep its recall high? I don't understand.

That week, Adrian had seen watch brand Frequa's campaign ideas, that used shock as a tactic. While Barrun had protested that they were still ideating, Adrian had been annoyed that ‘ideation' included using an Indian priest in a pub. Shock, felt Adrian, should not alarm.

Barrun: Shock is hereafter going to be that part of Frequa's personality which will be invoked from time to time. It will not be overdone, as that can dilute the brand's power. But just like Jaagore put into Tata Tea something more, shock will put some power into Frequa.

Nimki: But that was not shock. That was just ‘different' from being cup, wah and tea. But ‘shock' is powerful in that it draws attention in a big way. A half-pager in TOI showing an Indian priest slurring over a young girl — that is going to startle quite a bit.

Adrian: Messages that are not connected to the product are not sustainable. Yes, I am coming back to product and do not feel any need to express brand values at this stage.

Nimki: Okay, Adrian, before we convert this into a marketing decision, let me show you how shock helped in some cases.
And then Nimki opened the website for a brand called American Apparel (AA). There burst onto the screen an entire page of nearly all the products that AA sold. Adrian looked at it and said, "Okay, so ladies' clothes and accessories combined with extreme states of nudity; you will get eyeballs gazing at the products but you will not generate a desire for product. If they are saying their brand has recall, they are kidding themselves. There is direct recall without the prop of a nude image and there is aided recall propped up by nudity. I like to ensure my product is known for its goodness, unaided."

Barrun: There is another point here, Nimki — sexually provocative ads have a hugely divided following. In the case of AA, their products cater to ages 21-27, people who are in the exploratory stage of life and given to rebellion and controversies. So the campaigns speak their language for the time being! When that 25-year-old grows to be 35 and has a six-year-old, will he or she shop online with the child? I feel ads should be acceptable to me as I grow.

Then again, they seek to be controversial. Is this sustainable? No, not even desirable. I don't think this is the intention of Frequa, no way. Does the AA ad shock you, Adrian?

Adrian: Not like a ‘priest in a pub' ad would. It shocked me that some people were able to bring themselves to engaging young girls, to model in a voyeuristic way to cater to an audience. I have some sacred cow issues, which I will not compromise, and the use of ‘sex' is one. Nuts and bolts is this, like I said the last time too, shock must serve a very hard-hitting purpose. It should deliver higher than shock, if not the brand will die a resounding death.

Nimki: Recall Tuff shoes? In the 1990s, Tuff showed two models in the nude, with a snake wrapped around their bodies. The ad managed to get a lot of publicity. But Tuff could not explain the context for nudity. The agency claimed creative licence and after a prolonged court case that lasted 14 years, the case rested. Brand got recall, but no brand message. 

Adrian: Good. So what happened to shock?

Nimki: Shock needed to connect with brand personality. And I think there was no evolved brand persona here.

Adrian: Can you today shock a generation that has grown up watching gore and sexually explicit content on the web? Understand, you don't need shock, all you need is to be sharply effective. So ads have to hit hard and make their point. If the message is unrelated to the brand, it is highly likely I won't remember the brand but I will remember the storyboard, but that is not why I am advertising. 

FCUK's is in fact an advertising idea that became a brand! On the other hand, another fashion brand is Benetton, which uses shock as an ingredient and appears to tell you that the ‘idea' is the brand. I think it is too late into the brand's life and that is why it looks contrived.

How the acronym FCUK became the idea is interesting. They say — and this is really how great moments happen to brands — Trevor Beattie, TBWA's chairman, once noticed that French Connection, UK, the clothing maker, used the acronym FCUK in internal memos. He then sat there and doodled the brand idea on a paper napkin. And a brand idea was born.

I guess this must have been the great bursting into the open of FCUK's brand personality that had been latent until then for want of an expression or self-definition. It worked well probably because the brand had not come out of its shell then and the one acronym led to a star being born! But the same cannot be said for Benetton; I do believe Benetton had a fine personality, image — so the point is, why did Benetton want to redefine itself?

Barrun: This whole thing is a perspective business. In fact advertising is about perception — half full to Bihar can be half empty to Chennai. So, as Beattie himself once said something to the effect that when it is all out there, happening in the real world, it is okay; but we make an ad out of it and we are in the sin-bin.

So I guess what gets bothersome here is the idea of putting the spotlight on a shock-moment and then foisting a brand on it and seemingly, making capital. See what I mean?

Adrian: I do, and that is why I said if shocking things happen, it is fine. But if you construct shock, it is not fine. Come back to Tuff; do tell me, what was the idea? If shock, then it only shocked. Did it do anything for the brand? Was the campaign addressing the brand or the product? Or simply seeking to draw attention?

Nimki: That was mid-to-late 1990s — Tuff's impact delivered a different result. Let alone shock, Indian advertising did not even surprise because we had so few products anyway. Tuff's nude ad cut through a ‘Nike-Reebok' dominated market and made Tuff ‘visible'. The ad delivered ‘cool' to an otherwise unknown brand and gave it a business card to show. And this, in the face of a Reebok aggressively selling fitness to an aloo-paratha-for-breakfast population.

To be fair, what Tuff did was far ahead of its times and was an aesthetic execution. The creative simply cannot be faulted. But it did not help the brand.

Barrun: I get your point, Nimki, and yours too Adrian. None of the ads — MR Coffee's, Tuff's or Kamasutra's — were able to link to the brand message only because their visuals startled the people.

Every culture has its own taboos, and for India, it is the topic of sex and sexuality as seen in these three ads. But casteism will not be a shocker for India because it is a core part of our life and our attitude, where we remain in denial yet. We do not have a leadership statement on casteism, child marriages, oppression of women, molestation being crime; we don't mind these but sexuality bothers us immensely.

Adrian: So sell me ‘why shock', don't just tell me. You tell me shock can deliver a stunning message, then show me it can. And then, I come back to Frequa; you want to awaken the brand, build it into an environment of relevance and create a great context for it. I am all for that. But to make shock the medium of delivery does not agree with me.

There is also a lurking danger, Barrun, and I want you to be alert to this. This is a thought that hit me while you were arguing about sales figures going up. What, in your estimate, is the reason for Benetton to return to product advertising? After a whole season of shockers, they are doing good old product ads — see my tees, see my shorts, see my elephant wear pink socks... No, I am serious. I dare say their sales have not inspired me. So what is prompting them to return to product, away from the theme of shockvertising? Are we then saying that once you choose to shock,  you have to sustain it? That the day you decide to do run-of-the-mill advertising, you lose eyeballs?

Barrun: We have only Benetton to go by and so the resultant statistics will say that 100 per cent of the times if you revert to product advertising, your sales will reduce. But that is unfair. But why does a brand like Benetton return to product? Was there pressure to do so? Were they unable to sustain shock? Did their shock fail? As a marketer I say it is a bit more than that. The life of a brand is not entirely karmic. Cause to effect. There is a lot of intervention too, like brand managers and directors change, the issue projected in the theme changes. In Benetton's case, the politics of the world changed, and hence their kissing campaign totally backfired... Brands using brand ambassadors often face this, but brands like Benetton, by hitching a theme to politics have to hedge. These are chances that can pay off well. Benetton's campaigns have a terrific following. You should have seen how the Google searches spiked during every one of their campaigns.

Adrian: Yes, but going by search hits only is immature. Searches indicate curiosity value, not necessarily subscriptions. People who are unable to voice their expression go back again and again to validate their own thoughts through expressions that others voiced. Benetton's Unhate campaign, which used a variety of morphed images from the Pope kissing the Egyptian imam to the US President kissing the Venezuelan President, all in a bid to promote global love, chose a suspicious tack. The protest against it was clearly a protest not against global love but against the depiction using a liplock. I love my mother, sister and daughter. I kiss them on the cheek or their hand. Is this hard to understand? So yes, Benetton was treading risky ground. Now how desperate is that?

The Vatican got upset and seriously. People rubbished them. Point is very simple, Barrun: There is a fundamental line of respect we as advertisers need to adhere to. These people — the Pope, the presidents, the priest — are positions, not people. These positions stand for a standard of conduct, of respect again. You cannot sit there and redefine these equities. No, you cannot! This is not about freedom of expression. Benetton defended hard and called its campaign a decision to make visible ‘an ideal notion of tolerance'. You cannot redefine some relationships and choose to give it your interpretation or vision because it appeals to your sense of fairness. Because, those positions, like the Pope, the priest, the president, were created to draw boundaries for a society to operate within. Because we believe society is comprised of humans who have to do their duties so that others get their rights. You may not like it. That's fine, you may break it. And people do. But you cannot exhort an impressionable audience to do likewise. And that is what you are doing when you put out a public advert and claim it is your brand idea.

Why? Because, you are primarily in the business of advertising for commercial gains; you are addressing your chosen target audience, the youth, hence you cannot take for yourself a voice you are not allowed. The pulpit is yours to sell tees and shorts and pink socks. Stick to your knitting. And this is about doing your duty, merely sticking to your knitting.

Look at it another way. When a man molests a girl, we arrest him because he invaded her boundary, yes? Ads like these also molest the sensitivity of those who have chosen their fences. Personally, as a brand, I may not get hurt ,but my duty is to respect the pain it causes others.

Barrun: I know what you mean ethically. But Adrian, look at the ads' performance, not their platform. American Apparel has very high recall and whatever it is doing is sharp, edgy and very young — all attributes that match the brand. Ditto for Benetton — high recall, and the ads matched the company's efforts, positioning and brand delivery.

Adrian: I agree on AA; its shock connected with the brand bingo! What AA did was generally shocking, but specifically fitted to the brand, because that is what it is — young, wild, unbridled, seeking to shock, break rules, startle mankind... because youth is about exploring and expressing and AA did that using visuals that jarred the senses of those who were not the TA. But the TA? They loved it as much as their elders (parents, schools, churches) hated it. Now this actually brings me to another point Barrun, but before that let me add on Benetton.

You can shock people to think out of the box by slapping them awake to the reality behind an issue. Way back Benetton's advertising chose to play out the United Colors idea using multiculturalism, ethnic tribes coming together, different countries contributing to a product, stuff like that. That did cause people to view the idea of collective effort, diversity, etc., shifting thought away from urban complacency to thinking ethnicity. Then they began shockvertising – there was that unnecessary billboard that tried to sell all this using a black stallion mating a white one. A billboard, Barrun. Why? Why mating? Why not grazing? There are many ‘becauses' I can list.

Nimki: This is it! People hate being misled, when ads exaggerate a point, and present an idea using an unnecessary platform very exaggeratedly. Like Federici's nun campaign or Benetton's Unhate campaign. My point is this: If you use taboo subjects in advertising, but the rest of the product (or service) is not risqué, then you are rooting for trouble. You use a sledgehammer to kill a fly and people are going to ask, ‘what the hell is the matter with you!' This is what failed Tuff.

Audiences are sophisticated and they see through what an advertiser is trying to do – and they don't like being manipulated, unless the advert can demonstrate shock well and keep it relevant. This is the difference between a young audience craving adventure and a mature audience that chooses intelligent surprises.

Yet let me add. We keep thinking young audience means we must plaster the billboards with sex, drugs and Facebook. Actually not. They also uniquely come with an intelligence that our generation acquired at 40. So they have a core segment that is going to ask you this — what is so shocking about your watch that you are resorting to shock in advertising? And I ask the same about Benetton — they are everyday clothes people. They are the clothes I still wear, there is an effervescent happiness about their clothes. I wear them to work, to play in the sandpit with my little girl, to the disco and to lounge in. When that is so, when they are so everyday-wear, why are they opting for the out-of-the ordinary? 

Adrian: Ah... so here is my point, well said Nims! Are you advertising for the world or for your consumers? If consumers, then they are taken aback, because they don't recognise you.

So I ask this: Would we be shocked to see our ministers in jail? No, we see that very often. Would it shock us to see a tainted minister go and then come back to his office? Not anymore, it seems, as it is par for the coalition course. Will it shock us to see the PM in jail? It will. Will it sell my watches more? No! 

I like shock; it is refreshing now and then. But the medium cannot become the message. Shock is but a medium and must align itself to the message. The Jaagore campaign delivered a different kind of shock. It shocked me to realise the kind of person I actually am. Isn't that what advertising is supposed to do — jolt you a bit ever so often? Like when people like us choose to not vote because it is Nannu's mundan ceremony? The shock of encountering the stupid Indian inside you is the real shocker and these ads actually deliver. I think we are a inwardly drawn country — yet we make choices over what we will confront, and what we will not. So, we will bypass external shocks like wealth amassing godmen and porno-gazing ministers. But issues that shock the conscience and wake it up, do remain relevant. And shocking. It's time for Dushyant (the brand manager) to present his viewpoint. As for me, Frequa is a sports watch and we all know it is not a technological wonder! So don't force it to speak what it does not feel.

To be continued....

Classroom discussion
Does the cost of sustaining a brand pay for the discomfort caused by its choice to use shock?


(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 23-04-2012)