By Karthik Kumar
A wizened advertising professional once remarked, ‘a good public controversy is better than good advertising for a brand’.
Does it mean that any public controversy works in favour of the brand? Two brands, Kent and Tanishq, which created controversies during this ongoing pandemic show the contrasting ways in which controversies work for brands. Both brands were in the public eye for their advertising and both brands had to withdraw their advertising. The moot point is the kind of controversy that works for the brand and the kind that does not.
For those who are not familiar with the controversies, a brief recap. Kent, in its advertisement for a flour dough kneader denigrated the chores a maid does. This attracted widespread criticism and the brand had to withdraw advertising. Tanishq, in its advertising contextualized an inter-faith marriage and showed how a caring mother-in-law respected her daughter-in-law’s faith. This portrayal also drew criticism from a virulent section of the society that threatened violence against the brand, forcing Tanishq to withdraw its advertising.
Now let us look at what happened to the brands immediately before and after the episodes leading to the withdrawal of the advertising. A useful indicator is the search volume for the brands. A Google Trends comparison of the search volumes for the two brands, a week immediately before and a week immediately after the advertising was withdrawn, shows how the search trends were for the two brands. The charts show that:
The search volume for Kent, which peaked around the time the advertising was withdrawn, went back to the same level as the pre-advertising phase. In the case of Tanishq too, the search volume decreased after the advertising was withdrawn. However, in the post withdrawal period, Tanishq’s search volume was almost twice as high in the pre-withdrawal period, suggesting that the interest on the brand continued to be high even after the ‘offending’ advertising was withdrawn. And, this is where the advertising veteran’s analysis brings home the bacon.
In the case of Kent, the criticism of its portrayal was universally panned. Hence, the interest waned after corrective action was taken. In the case of Tanishq, though, the criticism was not universal. The original criticism, was met with push back by others, keeping interest alive. Thus, the media soundbites that Tanishq received was far more, and likely generated more visibility than the advertising itself would have, had it continued to be run. Consequently, the brand got more visibility (and, unpaid to boot!) due to the controversy than even if the advertising had been continued.
So what worked in Tanishq’s favour
Clearly the criticism itself was flawed. Hence, there were as many or more proponents for the brand than those against. So, even without Tanishq having to justify its choice, it had many fighting for it.
Second, the opponents to the advertisement, because of their threats and the reasons for their opposition, came out as hypocritical and uncivil. Hypocritical, because they framed inter-faith marriages in a context where one faith was violent, while ignoring the injustices of casteism occurring in their own faith’s backyard from Hathras to Udumalpet. Uncivil because rather than debate their objections, they chose to threaten violence if their diktats were not carried out.
A third factor that worked in Tanishq’s favour was that the commercial itself was themed on a celebration and the joy that comes with it. Added to it was the message of amity and mutual respect. Given the positive strokes of the commercial, the villain was the protest and the protestors, rather than the commercial itself.
Last, but not the least, social media was rife with how the Tata’s were being sullied and being disrespected, despite their stellar track-record of corporate governance and philanthropy.
All taken together, this controversy not only increased Tanishq’s visibility, but also, burnished its brand reputation and value with the overwhelming positive coverage, in both, mainstream and social media, far more than the advertisement alone could have. The critics, on the other hand, lost their credibility and goodwill.
Does this episode mean that brands should court controversy in the hope of reaping the positive visibility. Certainly not, since controversy is a double-edged sword and has as much potential to harm. However, should a controversy appear, the choices for the brand are to plead mea-culpa, when it is going against it, or feed the fuel of controversy, when the going is good. As the savant said ‘good controversy, is better than good advertising’. Pay heed to the good.
The author is director at Rage Communications.
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