Row over publicity campaign for Sony LIV's Undekhi is past, but TV biz must quit shock tactics for marketing

An executive with a TV channel said that misfires such as with Undekhi's promotions point to the immense pressure marketing teams are under to come up with strategies that set a show apart from the proliferation of competition.

Natasha Coutinho-Dsouza July 15, 2020 13:03:30 IST
Row over publicity campaign for Sony LIV's Undekhi is past, but TV biz must quit shock tactics for marketing

Over this weekend, several individuals reported receiving calls from an unknown number, with the caller — a panicky-sounding man who introduced himself as Rishi — claiming to have witnessed a murder. A sobbing “Rishi” also said he would be targeted by the murderers next. While some dismissed the call, others were alarmed enough to report the call to the authorities or post the incident on social media. The twist in the tale was that the call/s turned out to be a publicity stunt for a new Sony LIV show called Undekhi.

As complaints against the stunt mounted, the channel withdrew the campaign and tendered a public apology, but as bizarre as this story is, it isn’t the first time TV shows have crossed the line when it comes to promotional tactic. Letters from “stalkers” sent to several women (Laal Ishq), “missing person” posters placed in local trains (Mujhse Kuchh Kehti …Yeh Khamoshiyaan), an actress slapping a co-star — the marketing teams for TV shows have come up with variants of these and more during the past some years. For Ekta Kapoor’s web series Apharan, several popular actors like Karan Patel, Shabbir Ahluwalia, Parth Samthaan and Erica Fernandez among others, cryptically posted on Instagram: “Mera apharan ho gaya hai”, while the producer played along, trying to find out the location of her actors and feigning worry.

Clearly, campaigns like these have the potential to cause public panic. Why then are they used?

Undekhi’s producer Siddharth Sen Gupta termed the incident connected with his show “unfortunate” and said the makers had little say in the campaign that was conducted. “It’s decided by the marketing team,” Sen Gupta told this correspondent. “The promotion was taken off immediately once people complained. I spoke to the channel as soon as I got a WhatsApp forward about these calls being made. By then, they had already stopped the campaign.”

While Sen Gupta felt that the incident would serve as a cautionary note to all the television industry on what is put out in the name of promotions, the fact is that a similar brouhaha, over 2012’s Mujhse Kuchh Kehti …Yeh Khamoshiyaan, did nothing to discourage shock tactics.

Coming a few months after Kahaani, the promotions for Yeh Khamoshiyaan borrowed a publicity idea from the Vidya Balan thriller to plaster “missing” posters for a Gauri Bhosle (the character played by lead actor Mrunal Thakur in the show) in local trains and in mass media. There was even a back-story about “Gauri” being an NRI from London, who had been last seen on her way to a railway station in Delhi.

The show’s producer Sai Deodhar (a well-known actor herself) said the idea for the campaign originated with Star Plus’ marketing team. “We were a bit surprised [when they suggested the campaign] because the show had nothing to do with a missing girl, but then of course they know better how to market a show, and the logistics involved,” Deodhar recounts.

Row over publicity campaign for Sony LIVs Undekhi is past but TV biz must quit shock tactics for marketing

Still from Undekhi | Sony LIV

She also qualifies that while the posters were realistic, the channel ensured they looked different enough that no one who saw them would mistake it for an actual missing persons alert. “We wanted people to develop an interest in the show but not actually start looking for the actor. One has to be careful not to cross that line,” Deodhar says, adding, “Nowadays, the concept is — any publicity is good publicity. But I don’t know how much that works.”

Actors and showrunners alike agree that responsible publicity is non-negotiable. Sumeet Vyas, the star of hit series like Permanent Roommates and Tripling, observes that the Undekhi snafu highlights how creativity must be tempered with sound judgement when it comes to promotional tactics. “I think the idea [with this campaign] must have been to do something innovative to promote the show and break through the clutter, but one has to be careful and responsible,” Vyas notes. “As an actor, I try my best to promote my shows responsibly. If the show has merit, attention and adulation will follow. If it doesn’t, no amount of theatrics will help. You’d rather take a bow and move forward.”

It must be noted here that since its release on Sony LIV, Undekhi has earned many favourable reviews. An executive with a TV channel said that misfires such as with Undekhi's promotions point to the immense pressure marketing teams are under to come up with strategies that set a show apart from the proliferation of competition. “Everyone is releasing their shows right now to cash in on the lockdown period,” the executive, who didn’t wish to be named in this report, said. “So the only option is to grab eyeballs — that too on a tight deadline — or get lost in the crowd.”

Admitting that “sometimes, things do go wrong”, the executive said that even a controversy usually helps a product, garnering curiosity about a show: “If nothing else, the audience will at least Google the show and that is definitely a win for its promotion.”

The executive also confirmed what Sen Gupta and Deodhar had said: actors and showrunners don’t usually have much of a say in how a publicity campaign is run. “They have to trust us. But if there are objections to a campaign, we try our best to convince them or work out a middle path because it is only after multiple meetings and thinking about all possible angles that a marketing strategy is finalised.”

With an advertising campaign, the fine line lies between exaggeration and misleading. Among the Indian advertising industry’s best known figures, Prahlad Kakkar says, “Advertising is an exaggeration of reality; you are permitted to exaggerate but not tell a lie to promote your product. You need to catch attention, but don’t think your consumer is stupid, you need to treat them carefully.”

Kakkar also points to changing sensibilities and says that what may have passed muster some years ago won’t fly today: “You need to keep in touch with the current situation before unleashing your marketing campaign. In India today, we’ve lost our sense of humour and are walking on eggshells. [In this minefield], one has to think 10 times before deciding on how to promote their product.”

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