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Kent ad fiasco: A cautionary tale for advertisers in COVID times?

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Advertising experts note that brands need to take precautions to not look insensitive, creepy or opportunistic in their communication

The unprecedented national crisis caused by COVID-19 has raised many issues for brands and advertisers. Consumers are searching for ways to connect and make sense of the ongoing situation as social distancing measures continue to disrupt daily lives across the globe. And with empty hours to be filled each day, consumers are all spending more time consuming media – especially social media. As if brands weren’t already under immense social scrutiny, the current landscape has only made it harder for brands as they tread through challenges like insensitivity and tone-deafness. Indian healthcare company Kent’s ad elicited public ire and was slammed for being “classist” and “offensive.” The brand yesterday withdrew the ad and apologised for the same after facing a severe backlash with netizens even questioning the brand ambassadors for endorsing it.

“We have withdrawn the said ad of Kent Atta maker and it will never be launched again. It was unintentional, badly communicated and was wrong and therefore withdrawn. We are sorry to have published it. We support and respect all sections of the society,” Mahesh Gupta, Managing Director and Chairman said in response to exchange4media’s email.

The ad, which promoted bread and atta maker, asked consumers, “Are you allowing your maid to knead the atta dough by hand? Her hands might be infected. Don’t compromise on health and purity and buy the Kent Bread and Atta maker.”

Several people reported it to the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) for being insensitive towards the domestic help who are already facing discrimination from housing societies across the country.

The ads might have been taken down from company’s social media handles including Instagram, but can the brand undo the damage? Moreover, what should brands and agencies take away from this fiasco? What are advertisers supposed to do in a time of serious concern? Advertising experts note that taking precautions not to look insensitive, creepy, or opportunistic is the first step.

The sensitivity factor 

Brand strategist Ambi M G Parameswaran feels that such a situation is a collective failure of both the client and the agency. He opines that it is likely that someone in the brand team has given a half-baked brief to the agency and did not question it before creating the ad. “Lockdown does not mean that you dismantle the marcom decision and approval process. In a more litigious society, they could have got sued. Which is why every ad, every message needs to be cleared by marketing, branding and even the legal team. And now, you also need societal and cultural sensitivity training for brand teams. A lesson Kent has learnt the hard way,” he remarks.

However, Parameswaran feels that it could have been an unintentional mistake. “I requested ASCI to ask the company to post an apology message. The truth is that Kent is not a new company. They have been actively doing brand promotions for a decade or more. How did they make such a mistake? I don’t think they would have done this consciously,” he says.

Meanwhile, K V Sridhar (Pops), Global Chief Creative Officer, Nihilent & Hypercollective, feels that while the ad came across as discriminatory and one in bad taste, acknowledging and withdrawing is the right step taken by the brand.

“Especially in these times of COVID-19, what we have learnt in the past couple of days is that anyone could be infected – you could be a billionaire or a country head. So why pick on maids?” he argues. Sridhar notes that the ad could dent Kent’s proposition of purity. “Brand value is decided with the acts you do. You can’t have a past Rajya Sabha member and a loved actress to endorse this. It’s demeaning,” he remarks.

Furthermore, Kent’s brand ambassador, Hema Malini too called the controversial advertisement “inappropriate” and said that it doesn’t resonate with her values. “I respect and stand by all sections of society,” she said in a statement.

Caution and communication 

Prathap Suthan, managing partner and chief creative officer (CCO) of Bang In The Middle feels that the overt sense of entitlement and blatant bias just poured gasoline on the brand. “There’s a brilliant Malayalam proverb which essentially says – ‘Give someone a stick, and you’ll get beaten with it’. Quite explanatory. And one that wittily underlines the hara-kiri that the brand committed,” he points out.

He shares that what surprises him is that the brand ambassador and her team didn’t spot this. “What shocks me is that they didn’t disallow the boorishness. Ideally, they shouldn’t have allowed it to be published. Or did the brand team make the unforgivable mistake of not sharing it with the brand ambassador and her team? Anyway, the damage has been done, and I just hope before my remarks come out, they would have apologised,” he remarks.

Furthermore, Suthan observes that plenty of brands in the past have gone through tests and ordeals worse than this and many have come out stronger than ever. “You can’t fix the past. You can only control the present. I just hope wiser counsel prevails, everyone responsible for this gaffe learned a rather expensive lesson. Apologising is the right thing to do now. And it doesn’t take too much to do it. Quickly and sincerely accept the mistake, seek to be pardoned for the error of judgement, and get on with it,” he notes.

Recently, in a blog post, Twitter’s Alex Josephson and Eimear Lambe addressed brands, stating that COVID-19 is not a ‘marketing opportunity’ to capitalise on. “We do not recommend brands opportunistically linking themselves to a health scare,” they said.

To be sure, marketing in the midst of a global pandemic is always a delicate proposition.

According to Sandeep Goyal, Founder, Mogae Media, there was really no need to bring the maid into the narrative. He feels that the core communication should have been about dirty or contaminated hands and that the mention of the maid was extraneous, not discriminatory.

“The brand could simply have said that kneading atta with hands could sometimes be unhygienic. However, this doesn’t make the brand or the communication either classist or discriminatory. By virtue of that, everyone using house help or maids can be similarly described. So two wrongs don’t make a right. Allusions to reality too need to be politically correct for brand communication. Otherwise, social media starts reacting. That is unfortunately real and true,” Goyal asserts.

Globally, many brands like Coors Light, Hershey, and KFC have had to withdraw ads as they faced a backlash from consumers who felt that the campaigns didn’t reflect the new, global pandemic-informed reality.

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Misbaah Mansuri

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