In a world dominated by social media, where influencers strive to capture attention, a recent incident involving Poonam Pandey has raised critical questions about the boundaries of celebrity culture and building sensationalist awareness on digital.
January is celebrated as Cervical Cancer Awareness Month and 4 February is World Cancer Day. Apart from that, the Interim Union Budget announced on 1 February, had declared the government's plans to push for preventive vaccination against cervical cancer for girls aged 9 to 14.
On Friday, 2 February, Pandey's Instagram page stated that she succumbed to cervical cancer. However, a day later, she released a video to reveal this was staged.
It was further revealed that Hauterrfly (a media publication for women) had staged this as part of a campaign to shed light on HPV vaccines for cervical cancer awareness.
This prompted reflection on the ethical implications of such a dramatic approach, especially for audiences who have experienced firsthand the pain of cancer with their loved ones.
The campaign was conceptualised by Schbang, as was revealed by Pandey on her posts claiming she didn’t mean to hurt anyone’s sentiments and did it to raise awareness.
Schbang also released a statement about the campaign on social media.
Netizens on Instagram, both on Hauterrfly and Pandey’s page as well as the A&M fraternity on LinkedIn, expressed their frustration with this digital marketing strategy.
We asked experts:
How does a sensational post, like faking one's death, affect an influencer's credibility and future brand associations? Can the backlash from misinformation overshadow the intended message, and why didn't Meta address it as fake news, sparking concerns about accountability in the digital misinformation era?
Shavon Barua, brand consultant and strategy advisor
Sensationalism, shocking or seedy? Many apologies to Oscar Wilde but is it better to be talked about in this ridiculous manner than not being talked about? Truth be told, who is Poonam Pandey who replaced the equally, if not, sillier boy on the search bars for most folks? 3 seconds of fame ticked. Sensationalism ticked, strong reactions mostly anger and distaste for both Pandey, whoever she is and the publication whatever it is, also ticked. The fact they chose a serious subject like Cancer is a new level of low. But what is the surprise? Fake news is a way of life. Almost all versions of Media propagate that and if we have expectations that platforms like the Big Three will call this out, we are even bigger fools. The only hope is this so-called ‘influencer ecosystem’ is soon reaching its expiry date and Brands will stop encouraging and pausing their support to these worthless opinion makers. They are beyond annoying. Anyway, enough time was wasted on this.
Shikha Davessar, executive vice president and head client business, 22feet Tribal Worldwide
This act is indeed very distasteful, especially considering the growing trend of consumers relying on celebrities and influencers for authentic content. Using shock tactics related to death is not only ineffective but also exploitative. There were certainly better ways to raise awareness about cervical cancer. Poonam is most likely to lose credibility in the future because of this act. Policies are being developed to streamline the content creation ecosystem and prevent misleading content and I genuinely look forward to how it's implemented across the industry.
While the initial strategy of this campaign may have met the objective of spreading awareness on the first day, the focus quickly shifted to the influencer on the second day, detracting attention from the actual cause of cervical cancer.
The implications of this stunt have been harmful, negatively impacting families who have lost loved ones to the disease. As humans, we should develop empathy and sensitivity for those affected, including families, doctors, and researchers. This act fundamentally undermined the intended purpose at multiple levels.
As advertisers, there's a huge responsibility we carry on our shoulders to create authentic stories and narratives that contribute positively to society. We wield the power of persuasion and are capable of influencing mindsets to drive behavioural change. Therefore, we must exercise utmost responsibility in guiding this impact and the change we bring about.
Krishna Iyer, director - marketing, MullenLowe Lintas Group
How bizarre was it! Kendall Jenner was seen offering peace at a protest with a can of soda. Or how LinkedIn saw a drama that played out when employees of a job search site began resigning en masse only to join the same company with a refreshed brand name! Or the more recent stunt where a radio station’s CEO publicly announced that it was shutting down only to return with a refreshed brand name hours later.
However, Poonam Pandey's death hoax is no laughing matter. Death by cervical cancer" stunt might win the effectiveness award for most likes or shares. Sure, grabbing eyeballs is social media – full marks for that. But "shockvertising" for all the wrong reasons which exploits real-life tragedies and propagates misinformation. It questions the celeb’s status, credibility and authenticity of what is said going forward.
Here's the truth: cervical cancer is a serious issue, not a publicity stunt. And while raising awareness is crucial, it shouldn't come at the cost of exploiting grief and spreading harmful narratives. Well-being is not about "pushing boundaries" or "sparking conversations," it's about basic human decency and respecting the lived experiences of countless families touched by cervical cancer.
So, Ms. Pandey, your "brave" act wasn't brave. You didn't raise awareness, you just raised hackles. And for brands contemplating similar "bold" tactics, remember shock value might get you clicks, but trust takes a lifetime to build, and one insensitive stunt can shatter it faster than you can imagine.
As much as we put the responsibility on celebs, the followers and social media platforms carry this on their shoulders. A verified blue tick of authenticity that was a platform privilege is now available for a monthly fee whether you have a few or a million followers. Platforms, brands and causes such as this have their self-regulation bit to be done. However, the power to make or break a trend even making a celebrity lies with the followers who should do it with a lot of awareness, authenticity, and responsibility.
Yash Chandiramani, founder and chief strategist, Admatazz
While there may be short-term backlash on her credibility and brand associations, it proves to be quite successful in bringing the influencer's brand into the limelight. It's like a typical PR-orchestrated scandal. While it may be great for the influencer it's a monumental disappointment for the brand/cause that is being marketed. It's not innovative, doesn't influence any behaviour and dilutes the seriousness of the issue. Yes, people are talking about it. But more in disgust than with the intent of taking action. What's next? Fake bomb scares to raise awareness about safety? Lying to the audience is not innovative it's deceitful and marketing cannot be built on deceit.
Of course, it will generate backlash and has overshadowed the intended message. While immediately a few words may start trending, it’s not going to drive any behaviour change. The media is a lot more interested in the reality star than the cause.