After the entire nation went into a tizzy, Poonam earlier this morning, revealed that all this in fact, was a well thought out campaign to raise awareness on cervical cancer. Taking to her IG handle she wrote, “I feel compelled to share something significant with you all – I am here, alive. Cervical Cancer didn’t claim me, but tragically, it has claimed the lives of thousands of women who stemmed from a lack of knowledge on how to tackle this disease. Unlike some other cancers, Cervical Cancer is entirely preventable. The key lies in the HPV vaccine and early detection tests. We have the means to ensure no one loses their life to this disease. Let’s empower one another with critical awareness and ensure every woman is informed about the steps to take. Together, let’s strive to put an end to the devastating impact of the disease and bring.”
While the motive behind the campaign might have been noble, netizens opined that faking your own death is in poor taste. However, this isn’t the first time Poonam or any celeb has pulled off something like this. A few months prior to her real wedding, Kiara Advani revealed her big ‘secret’ – the one which several of her followers expected to be her most anticipated wedding announcement with Sidharth Malhotra turned out to be nothing more than a brand endorsement. Likewise, when Malaika Arora shared a blushing photo of her on the gram last year with a caption that read, “I said YES”, several rushed to the comments section to congratulate her for her wedding with Arjun Kapoor. There were a handful who held their horses and waited for a work related announcement which turned out to be her web show Moving in with Malaika.
Poonam Pandey passes away: Leaked bathroom video to arrest during lockdown; a look at her controversies
This wasn’t the first time that Malaika managed to pull off a publicity stunt. In 2008, Malaika and Arbaaz courted controversy over an advertisement when as part of a publicity gimmick for a beauty product brand, they faked their separation that turned ugly. The brand’s PR team shared messages with the media confirming that the couple had split. The plan was to get them to reunite at the brand’s event the next day. But it was too late and Malaika and Arbaaz were accused of being publicity hungry.
We are living in desperate times and therefore celebs tend to indulge in desperate measures to seek attention from the public. As admitted by a publicist on condition of anonymity, “We require at least 40-50 mentions in the media for a project to be etched in public memory.” Artistes, producers and PR and marketing teams work in tandem to plan the publicity strategy for a project. Using the personal relationship of stars to create a buzz around a project is an age-old practice in the entertainment industry with some of the biggest names not hesitating to indulge in it.
Today’s #BigStory explores the big bad world of publicity and marketing, the kind of stunts that were pulled in the yesteryears, the role of social media, and whether such stunts are effective in fooling the audience anymore. Read on…
Where it started…
Film historian Dilip Thakur tells ETimes the first ever publicity stunt without people knowing it was a publicity stunt was for the film Daag where Sharmila Tagore and Rakhee had an argument. “The gossip magazines lapped it up so much that it helped the film. There were some love making scenes in the film. There was a buzz that Sharmila Tagore did not allow unnecessary people on the set. The controversy surrounded the romantic scenes and to which of the two actresses was Rajesh Khanna giving more footage. This was probably the first controversy that people did not realise was a publicity stunt,” he said.
An affair suddenly blooms between the lead pair of an upcoming release, or a long standing relationship between the lead pair goes kaput. Thakur reveals new trends like party gossip started in the 1970s. “The producer, director, and publicist would actually have a meeting together for such stunts. When Ram Teri Ganga Maili was going to be released, there were only two photos circulating in the media. One was of Mandakini under the waterfall and the other one was the kissing scene between Mandakini and Rajeev Kapoor. It triggered people’s curiosity about what kind of film Raj Kapoor has made,” he shared.
When Fida was to be released, the newly blossomed romance between Shahid Kapoor and Kareena was the USP of the film. Around Jab We Met, their breakup is what made the headlines. The first time rumours about Bipasha Basu and John Abraham’s breakup came was just a few weeks before the release of Corporate. The actress had then stated that she did not like unnecessary attention before the release of her film and that she was tired of such stupid stunts.
Actor Vishal Kotian has recently had a first hand experience of publicity stunts that celebs adopted while in the Bigg Boss house. Reflecting upon how the same old strategies apply even today, he says. “You often see that just before the show or a film is released, suddenly celebrities ka linkup ho jaayega, ya controversy ho jayegi. Say for instance Kartik Aaryan-Sara Ali Khan, Ishaan Khatter-Janhvi Kapoor. It all happened just before their films came. They create controversies like that just because they want people to look at them as a couple before the film releases.”
Are publicity stunts as effective today?
Thanks to Poonam’s ‘fake’ death news, not only did her social media handle blow up, cervical cancer as a disease also started trending, which in hindsight created awareness around the same. When Malaika Arora recently slammed a news report that claimed she was pregnant, she ended up tagging the OTT platform that will stream her web show Moving in with Malaika. This led to speculations that the whole exercise was merely a publicity gimmick to grab more eyeballs for her show. Many equated this with the PR stunts that the Kardashians strategically used to promote their show Keeping Up With The Kardashians. Even Kotian pointed out, “Malaika’s show is similar to the Kardashians. Suddenly she will come out with a controversy to be in the limelight. Let me tell you the actor is not to be blamed here. It’s the PR team that makes the strategy and the actor merely follows it.”
An industry source however informs, “Malaika tagged the OTT platform only because the copy on her rumoured pregnancy had the platform name mentioned. She is very hurt by the report.”
There are times when publicity stunts have gone wrong like in the case of the film Criminal, when Mahesh Bhatt got into trouble with the law after an advertorial on the front page of city tabloids stated that Manisha Koirala was murdered. It created a furore in the film industry, but didn’t help the film in any way. However, a real controversy involving Manisha and Shashilal Nair eventually helped the film Ek Chhoti Si Love Story.
In 1998, television promos of Aamir Khan’s film Ghulam claimed that the actor had a close call with death during the shooting of the train sequence. The film got a huge opening, and it was later admitted by Aamir and producer Mukesh Bhatt that it was just a publicity stunt and the scene was created by special effects.
Digital marketing expert Shrenik Gandhi explains, “Such publicity gimmicks could have been working earlier, now they don’t. The consumers have become a lot smarter. It’s very easy for people to see through such stunts. Earlier, when there was no social media, there was an aura around celebs being mysterious. And hence, these things would have worked much better. Now with social media, their life is open in public. And when that happens, you can’t get away with these things.”
Media analyst Karan Taurani says these stunts create the necessary buzz and increase viewership for a series or a film or even a brand. “A part of the audience may get upset with these kinds of stunts and it may defeat the purpose, but in the larger scheme of things, I think the job is done. So, I don’t think that there is anything wrong about it, it is just a measure to create the necessary hype around an event,” he says.
Dilip Thakur agrees these days people know when it is a publicity stunt. “Earlier, people wouldn’t know, and that’s why publicity stunts used to work. These days neither are such campaigns carried out nor do they work. Publicists from earlier times were smarter than today’s publicists. You won’t believe it but in earlier times, publicists used to decide which photo should be printed in which magazine. They would work on how to build and push a story depending on the readership of a magazine. Cinema won’t reach people through group interviews which have become a trend now. Today, people interview artists to take a selfie with them. How does a film benefit from that?,” he reasons.
Actress Soumya Tandon believes if a celebrity indulges in these kinds of stunts and publicity gimmicks too often, they might not be taken very seriously. “It is a very thin line you tread from the brand point of view as well as from the celebrity point of view, how much to give in and how much to not give in.”
Role of social media
It’s a no-brainer how social media has given a huge boost to the marketing gimmicks. Poonam’s insta account went into overdrive after the news of her ‘death’ and the news spread like wildfire, in seconds! Not only that, many celebs even passed on condolences to a woman, who was very much alive! A classic example of a successful campaign on social media would be that of Sonakshi Sinha who flaunted a ring in an Instagram post leading to fans speculating about her engagement to Zaheer Iqbal. Whereas it was later revealed she was announcing her nail accessory brand by flaunting her fingers.
Singer Neha Kakkar took this a notch higher as she posed with her husband flaunting a baby bump amidst speculations of her pregnancy. Turned out it was only a prosthetic baby bump and the campaign was designed to promote her upcoming song! Actress Neeru Bajwa too faked her third pregnancy on Instagram to promote her film Beautiful Billo.
Fans will never forget the hype that actress Devoleena Bhattacharjee created with her engagement pictures with Vishal Singh, that was followed by the wave of shock when they realised it was only a staged proposal for the promotion of a music video!
Explains Karan Taurani, “Social media is a big facilitator because there is a large portion of the audience on social media. In fact, that’s one platform where users are being added consistently and it does the job well. The impact of an announcement via simple advertisement may not be as great as the one created by these kinds of publicity moves. It gets the audience really excited and intrigued about what is happening. And I think that is what matters at the end of the day.”
Back in the day, entertainment magazines gained popularity because of the kind of unsubstantiated gossip they published. Prahlad Kakkar equates it to social media and says, “Today, celebs don’t need journalists and magazines for publicity anymore. They just have managers who manage their social media clout and then they fly all the rumours, and lend some degree of publicity to whatever projects that they are involved in.”
A senior marketing expert adds, “Grabbing attention and seeding conversations has driven the world of entertainment since the first performance/show/play/movie was made. So currently celebrities’ stunts seem louder. In the digital ecosystem, conversations around the actor help effectively target the audience with an upcoming show/movie or campaign. Conversations, impressions and social media trends are yardsticks of success.”
Clearly there are big monies involved in such campaigns. Why else would celebrities sign up to put their personal lives in the public domain in a twisted way. Amid speculations of Sania Mirza and Shoaib Malik’s marriage hitting a rocky patch, an OTT platform announced they are coming up with a show titled The Mirza Malik Show. Social media users were stunned to assume this was all a publicity stunt. Well, money could be a great motivator, they say.
An industry insider reveals the amount could range from a few lakhs to crores of rupees. “There are celebrities who put a post for a few lakh rupees and then there are some like say, Virat Kohli who was recently signed for a campaign by Puma. It must have cost around 7-8 crore rupees and about Rs 2.5 crore could have been the fee.”
Somy Ali thinks celebs can manage to fool the audience given the awe a lay person has for the stars. “As for these gimmicks, they are part and parcel of promoting a brand and I see absolutely nothing wrong with it. Keep in mind celebrities are fully aware of what they are in for and what they need to give up to succeed,” she says.
The infamous Bigg Boss house has seen many such publicity stunts for money. Rakhi Sawant and Ritesh Singh’s marriage, Sara Khan and Ali Merchant’s wedding inside the house are some of the most talked about publicity stunts pulled for grabbing eyeballs. Vishal Kotian who was in the house in season 15 says, “People in the Bigg Boss house thought that couples work more and this is happening especially after SidNaaz. TejRan also became quite popular recently. Those who don’t have the intelligence to play the game, who don’t know how to go ahead, who don’t have a personality, they start relying on something else. Then they start forming love stories inside the house to go ahead in the game. SidNaaz and TejRan were still organic. The other love stories that were fake faded out after they came out of the house because they were not real. Show khatam pyaar khatam. In our season, there was Meisha-Eishaan. Even in this season, there are Shaleen-Tina who are trying to make it work for the camera, because other than that they don’t have a game. Same is the case with Gautam-Soundarya.”
Where to draw the line?
While celebs and brands take informed decisions on planning such publicity strategies, there could be a flip side to the story as well. Several eyebrows were raised when the Maarrich team sent out knives to media personnel to promote the murder mystery film. Some considered it bad humour as it kind of spread an element of fear. “What if someone has a heart patient in the house, right? That is bad humor,” says an insider.
It is important to draw the lines, feels Shrenik Gandhi. “Going off social media is a personal choice. And that’s not insensitive, but taking something like pregnancy and doing a campaign around it is not cool,” he says. “Healthy fun is okay, insensitive fun is not.”
Somy Ali disagrees, “We are not playing with the sentiments or emotions of the fans, we are giving them exactly what they want. It’s equivalent to giving an addict his drug exactly when he/she needs it and requires it and in return their high is their satiation. Thus celebrities are fulfilling a void many suffer in their lives. And, they should be commended, both the supply and the demand.”
“Tumhare project pe tumhe bharosa nahi hai toh tum kuch bhi karo, it’s not going to work. Gimmick gives you eyeballs initially, but how long will it sustain? Because of the exposure to the real world, people know what is real and what is fake,” opines Vishal.
Actress Ruhi Chaturvedi prefers to keep my personal life and professional life separate. “I always feel your work speaks for itself. So, why do all these stunts? I think rather than spreading rumours or doing drama, celebs need to work on their craft. And the audience has become very smart now. You can’t fool them. It’s not right either,” she says.
Actress-writer Sukhmani Sadana too believes in keeping her dignity and sophistication by keeping personal matters to herself. “My personal life and professional life are two different departments. And I don’t see any reason why they should overlap. Of course if people know about it on their own I won’t deny it, but blowing your own trumpet and harping about your personal issues publicly just for marketing is something I don’t approve of. There’s class and exclusivity in keeping certain things in your life just to yourself,” she says.
Soumya won’t cross certain lines if she’s not comfortable about it. “I feel that I can’t handle that level of intrusion or publicity, so I will safeguard a lot of things in my life to be sold or to be used as publicity by brands or by shows,” she says.
Adman Prahlad Kakkar says it like it is, “Gossip rules and for the film industry, it is a lifeline. Nobody believes anything, but they love consuming it nonetheless.”