It was not the first time certainly but #BoycottZomato started trending on Twitter on Sunday after priests from Ujjain’s Mahakal temple showed their dismay towards an AI-powered ad featuring Hrithik Roshan.
In the ad, the actor is shown to have ordered food from 'Mahakal' as he felt like having a 'thali'. Though the ad referred to an eponymous restaurant, it soon became fodder for online trolls and cancel-culture leaders started commenting against the food-aggregator-and-delivery platform for “hurting religious sentiments”.
In a quick response, Zomato withdrew the ad by Sunday evening and issued an apology stating their intent was never to hurt sentiments.
However, the incident, once again, has put the spotlight on the hazy line that brands these days are treading with their marketing communications: anything can offend anyone. And when an ad is generated via AI, the situation becomes more complex. So how can brands work around tech-led ads in a highly sensitive and polarised world?
Industry insiders believe it is critical to have human intervention involved at every step of the course. After all, an ad is not just catering to the product it endorses, but also the people it is targeted at.
A creative director, without wishing to be named, said, “Technology is very important in today’s time but brands and marketers can’t overlook the human aspect of advertising. We are still talking to people and that’s something brands tend to forget these days. However, I am not saying that the outrage against the Zomato ad is right in any form, but if the brand can see the problem now, they could have picked it earlier in the process too.”
Grapes Executive Creative Director Priyank Narain too feels that it is unfortunate for Zomato that they had to pull the ad down as the intent in the ad (referring to Mahakal restaurant) seemed to be quite clear. “The intent in the ad seems to be quite clear. Common sense tells us that you obviously can't order from a mandir. And if they have to be so touchy about it, why didn't the mandir bother to reach out to the restaurant and get their name changed?”
On being asked how brands could be more careful to deal with such instances, he said, “They can do a thorough check to ensure there are no similar-sounding holy places in a particular town or city. They can also include perhaps the logo of that particular restaurant to make sure there is absolutely no confusion.”
Infectious Advertising Creative Director Subodh Chaubey says, “Think like your consumer. The only thing that has changed is that today, the target audience is not just a product's end consumers, but also the people who consume their brand's content. So, it makes sense to have human intervention for all tech campaigns as well, to spot these red flags beforehand.”
Suggesting a similar solution, a PR professional from Mumbai, Zaheer Chauhan, says, “The trolling is inevitable as the use of variables, in this case, the word ‘restaurant’ should have been part of the script to avoid any confusion. Being a responsible brand, it was a prudent decision to pull down the advertisement. Brands have to be wary of such consequences and need to identify the right mix of variables used for ads. Going too hyperlocal with deepfake will invite its own set of problems as it can’t be controlled.”
Will celebs be apprehensive of deep fake ads?
After Cadbury’s Cannes Lions-winning campaign that used deep fake to promote local shops and businesses, a number of brands joined the queue to replicate the experience. Zomato, too, working on a similar model, used Hrithik Roshan to promote local eateries based on the ad-watcher’s location. But with the actor himself being a victim of trolling, will celebrities be now apprehensive about doing such ads?
Chaubey feels that this is likely the possibility, “Since content affects a celebrity's brand image as much as it impacts the brand, it makes sense for them to be wary and want more control in what's being projected as their voice.”
Narain agrees, “Yes, such incidents definitely leave a bad taste in everyone's mouth, including the celebs. They will be apprehensive because they will be held responsible for something they didn't even say! But on the whole, as a society, we need to be a little more understanding. We should be able to have the wisdom to see for sure if the intent behind a particular ad was to hurt people's sentiments or not. And then accordingly react.”