The past decade has witnessed a paradigm shift from analog to digital. Every industry has witnessed and accepted this change of medium and has reaped the benefits of greater brand awareness and customer engagement.

The digital medium does provide a scope to experiment with marketing & promotions. Multimedia options have paved the way for innovative concepts to connect with the target audience. And that audience is growing. Ernst and Young report that India has the second highest per capita consumption of online videos in the world -higher than the US and China.

However, there have been times when the marketers lost their way in the digital chaos. The danger of the digital medium is that every consumer is also a broadcaster. This means that even the slightest mistake or open-to-interpretation campaign can blow up spectacularly. Here are eight examples of such failures that invited a backlash:

Surf Excel/ HUL:Image result for surf excel holi ad

The recent Holi advert of Surf Excel invited wrath from people on social media for being divisive. The advert showed kids playing Holi and one kid helping her Muslim friend escaping the Holi colour to reach the mosque for evening prayers. This is a great example of the potential of the message getting mangled in the digital medium. Although the intention of the marketers wasn’t to draw lines but what went wrong for HUL here was the communal tinge. Unless this is core to their brand, and religion is core to very few brands, marketers have always been advised to steer clear of this subject -and that advice is even more sage in the digital age.


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Race is another evergreen hot-button and the digital world is no different. The fashion apparels giant released a poster for its new collection of sweatshirts in January 2018 where an African-American child wore the sweatshirt that read ‘Coolest monkey in the jungle’ as a white kid looked at him with an expression of befuddlement. This would have been just another ad if the shirts had been reversed but as posted it became a poster-child for racially insensitive fashion brands.

Milwaukee Bucks:

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In January 2018 in mid-season when the Bucks fired their head coach of four years – Jason Kidd, the official announcement made on Twitter got them a lot of negative attention. The team tweeted it from their official handle on the day the club was celebrating its 50th birthday. Folks visiting their profile was welcomed with balloons. These were mistaken for celebrations for firing Jason Kidd. This was seen as mean-spirited and in poor taste.

Domino’s Pizza:

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In September 2018, a Russian Domino’s franchise rolled out an offer called Domino’s Forever on its Instagram page. Under this offer, the franchise promised to give 100 free pizzas a year for 100 years to the customers who would get the Domino’s logo tattooed. Their Instagram notifications went berserk with hundreds of people getting the tattoo. To curtail the damage, they started adding restrictions like the size and extending the offer to only 350 people. They had planned to run this promotion for months but the response made them take it down within a week. The lesson -the internet is home to way too many crazy people so brand marketers looking to up the ante will almost always not be able to raise it high enough.


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Digital media drives topicality and recency. This means cashing on the latest trends and discussions but Lenskart crossed a line with their promotional SMS soon after a devastating earthquake had hit Nepal and northern parts of India causing many deaths. Their message inviting people to “shake it off like this earthquake” was a knee-jerk reaction that was poorly considered and poorly received.

Ford India/ JWT India:

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Ford India’s ad agency – JWT India got fired in the wake of this controversial ad that received negative attention from people not only in India but worldwide. The idea was to showcase the big boot space. But the approach used was to show gagged and tied up women in the boot of a car driven by former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi, himself in the middle of a scandal at the time. The brand and agency received flak for being insensitive, ill-tempered, and plain dumb.

Kurl-On/ Ogilvy India:

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Ogilvy India’s ‘Bounce Back’ campaign for Kurl-On mattress invited people’s wrath. The brand and agency tried to cash on the popularity of figures like Mahatma Gandhi, Steve Jobs, and Malala Yousafzai after she received the Nobel Prize. The message was intended to reflect the ability of these icons to “bounce back” from personal adversity but was widely viewed as trivializing their struggles. The backlash was such that the agency had to withdraw from Kyoorius Advertising and Digital Awards that year.

Volkswagen Beetle:

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The target audience for this ad were the HNIs but little did the agency and the brand think about the message being conveyed here. By suggesting that the bug was received as a wedding gift the ad invited flak for promoting dowry – a social evil still rearing its ugly head in India.

Digital and social media has taken over the lives of consumers. These channels have become great means to establish a connect with the target audience. But the open, transparent, and two-way nature of these media are a double-edged sword. The task for the brand marketers looking to exploit these channels is to stay true to what the brand actually represents, to be authentic, and to not get swept away by meme-worthy daily trends. This must become the foundation of the brand’s communication on digital channels. That’s the way to stay safe and communicate well!


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