Fake it till you make it

How unethical can PR tactics get just to create the shock factor? The recent Poonam Pandey death hoax shows it all

Fake it till you make it

The death of a smut-promoting entertainer usually doesn’t cause ripples. But a sudden, untimely death is bound to make some waves, at least in India. Poonam Pandey’s fake death stunt of succumbing to cervical cancer and her incredible return from the dead, has exposed (more than she has in her entire career), the thin line between ethics and publicity. The entire team (Pandey, her staff, and the agency) resorted to the cheapest tactics of attracting eyeballs. While their intention may have been noble, the means didn’t justify the end.

Cervical cancer is a serious matter — as per estimates, 1,23,907 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer every year in India, of which 77,348 die from the disease. It’s the second most common cancer afflicting Indian women and also the second most frequent one among women between 15 and 44 years of age. Taking the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine should become mandatory for all women, especially before coming sexually active. This rather important issue was hijacked by the brouhaha over Pandey’s sudden death and Jesus-like resurrection.

Brand-building, public relations, and communications require carefully deliberated strategies and thoughtfulness. In current times, these plans would also need to imbibe inclusivity, sensitivity, sustainability, and so forth. The gravitas of handling an individual or entity’s public persona is not to be taken lightly. Sure, your style can be jocular, provocative, deep, or immersive. But the entire exercise carries with it tremendous responsibility that’s not to be trifled with. It was disappointing therefore to see (though not shocking to be honest), that an agency of repute would resort to a lazy, uninspired publicity campaign to grab attention. This is something that I hear and see quite often actually — the absence of mental application, the failure to identify probable pitfalls, the lack of foresight, the disconnect from the masses — larger agencies often take for granted and sidestep every due diligence chapter in the book that a campaign must always necessitate.

Pandey’s supposed death caused by cervical cancer may have triggered her fans (1.3 million on Instagram); it was also in bad taste for those who are suffering from cancer or lost a loved one to it. One wonders what did the agency hope to derive from this gimmick? A few Google searches of the words, ‘cervical cancer’? Or rather, simply more searches for Pandey in various stages of undress?

So, what could have been done differently to do justice to this worthy cause of spreading awareness about cervical cancer? First, we’d have to establish why Pandey (of all people) is speaking about this issue. Is it because she is a woman? Or because as an erotic performer she could weigh in on the need for precaution and safety? Or as some news reports suggested, her mother battled cancer. Next, would be to determine the various kinds of approach such a campaign could take — a sensitive, emotive message from Pandey speaking about the disease or perhaps a mother-daughter informal chat about cancer. There could be more out-of-the-box campaigns ideas jointly created by roping in an advertising agency whose expertise lies in tailoring social campaigns. Take for instance, the two-year old cervical cancer awareness advertisement starring actor Sharib Hashmi for the Indian Cancer Society; incidentally Hashmi’s wife is also a cancer survivor. Or when entrepreneur Nithin Kamath shaved his head along with his wife, Seema, as she battled breast cancer.

There are many ways to arouse curiosity and spread awareness about a campaign. But remember that the focus must stay on the key message of the campaign and not be hoodwinked by an avoidable controversy. On an aside, in 2011, Pandey had promised to strip naked if MS Dhoni-led Indian cricket team won the World Cup. Though India won, she did a volte-face. A pity since that was actually more on-brand for her than this death hoax.

The writer is an author and media entrepreneur. Views expressed are personal

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