Topics such as caste, religion and political commentary are a no-go most of the time, executives at four digital advertisement agencies told ET.
Recently, social media trolls hounded Tata’s jewellery brand Tanishq after its ad depicted a “baby shower” celebration from an inter-religious marriage. Earlier this month, e-commerce retailer Flipkart also faced social media outrage when it responded to a customer query on why it was not delivering to Nagaland, saying it is “outside India.” It has since started deliveries to the north-eastern state.
Clearly, even with all the planning and processes, it is sometimes impossible for brands to keep every Net-savvy person happy.
According to the creative director of a national ad agency who did not want go on record, a Big Tech company wants to steer clear of politics in advertisements, while a large fast-moving consumer goods brand that sells dishwashing soap in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh has an internal guideline to not depict women in an authoritative fashion. In fact, they need to be shown as docile and non-confrontational with in-laws, he said.
Response from Execs Crucial, Too
Over the last two years, as the reach of the internet has deepened, brands’ expenditure and approach to troll management on social media have ramped up.
Social media trolling is no longer a marketing department problem alone. During a crisis, brands have laid out a prioritisation roadmap for responses from various executive levels going up to the CEO.
“Think of it like a Richter scale that indicates how severe the problem is. If it’s 2 on the scale, it’s less severe and your proactiveness to solve that problem is small. But as the number goes higher and higher, you need to think of the problem more seriously,” a senior ad executive, who devises digital strategies for Unicorn startups and video sharing platform in India, said.
To be sure, startups like Zomato have been outliers — using both political and current news affairs to amplify their social media presence, even at the cost of being controversial. However, that is largely a drop in the ocean.
Also Read: Tanishq Ad Row: Is social media backlash the new threat?
Brands are also using a slew of digital tools from analytics companies like Unmetric and Brandwatch to track online sentiment. Additionally, they are hiring digital conversation specialists to pre-empt trolling and avoid communication that can irk someone.
Preparing to counter trolls can take up a substantial part of a brand’s marketing budget. They often use sophisticated social listening tools that cost anywhere from Rs 20,000 to Rs 70,000 per month, said Aashay Shah, co-founder of Django Digital, a sister company of The Schbang Network.
When brands face coordinated bot attacks by people set on pushing an agenda, they try to turn the tide by introducing a hashtag that is favorable to their brand. Getting a hashtag to trend for 30 minutes can cost brands up to Rs 1.5 lakhs, a digital ad expert said.
As the reach of brands and netizens widen, companies expenditure on digital ads will shoot by almost 4.5 times by 2025, with social media taking up the largest chunk, Dentsu Aegis Network said in a 2019 digital advertising report.
In this scenario, brands have a simple ask from their communication managers — “No human being can say that this message is against me,” said Abhishek Deshwal, an advertising professional at a network agency.
To prevent trolling, a small ad agency in Mumbai has its own set of recommendations for brands. They advise them not to be political, put down any group or show women in a bad light.
“Despite this, the menace of social media trolling does exist, so we inherently try to avoid anything that will cause an uproar,” said Shivang Shah, co-founder of Django Digital.
Also Read: Just don’t do it: Are woke campaigns ‘lazy’ marketing strategy?
Aligning with Govt Policies
Long-term clients have changed their strategy to align with government policies rather than any political ideology, a senior ad executive at a large agency said.
This helps the brand in ease of doing business, while simultaneously nudging the brand forward, he said.
To stay ahead of the narrative brewing on various social media platforms, brands are deputing conversation heads on digital media that exclusively track negative chatter and forecast and predict online sentiment.
“It was almost unfathomable a few months ago, but it has reached a point where your public opinion is shaped by a hashtag and you need to get ahead of that story, so brands are really keen on getting ahead of that narrative brewing around their product and communication,” said Ishtaarth Dalmia, a senior executive at Dentsu Webchutney.
Social media sentiment can quickly snowball and have long-term implications on a brand’s image.
“In this digital world, where consumer feedback is quick, and overall public opinion is quite ‘public,’ brands must be prepared with a ‘desired response’ as well as ‘expected response,” according to White Owl’s marketing manager Aayush Vyas.
‘Being Adept at Damage Control’
Comments on social media can promote healthy debate and even change, said Mamtah Sabhrwal, director of strategy at digital agency Isobar.
Brands, therefore, have to be more conscious and get better at damage control, she added.
Earlier this year, Kent RO promoted its automatic atta (wheat) maker by depicting a maid as a possible Covid-19 infection source. Social media was outraged and called the ad ‘classist.’ A few days later, the company’s chairman issued an apology and withdrew the ad.
Sabhrwal said the Tanishq incident will make brands debate the issue of sensitivity more rigorously and may even lead to “bold brands becoming bolder.”
However, according to advertising professional Deshwal, ad executives will also use the Tanishq ad as a reminder “again and again” to stay away from controversial subjects that border on social activism and instead stick to selling products.
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