Deepika Padukone at JNU: a stunt?

That Deepika Padukone visited JNU and stood in solidarity with the students protesting outside the university is already old news. It happened on the night of January 7th and within minutes, the news spread far and wide. Within minutes, support and boycott for her upcoming film, Chhapaak, materialized at the same time.

The photos made it to print newspapers on January 8th. I was given to understand from 4 different people that Deepika’s official PR firm, Spice PR, distributed photos of her presence outside JNU, to the media.

Now, when you come to know that her PR firm shared pictures of her JNU visit to media, what goes in your mind?

The usual reaction is this: that this entire visit was a promotional exercise for her film, releasing on Friday, the same week.

But then, when you think more about it, you also realize that there is a boycott appeal for the same film, for the same reason. The film is not an essential commodity that people could not live without. For instance, if there’s anger against China and there’s a call for boycotting China-made products, it’d be very difficult to follow-through that boycott.

So, was it still a promotional exercise? Or an anti-promotional exercise?

A lot of people still believe in ‘any publicity is good publicity’. This used to be true before social media when people got a voice that rivals mainstream media. When mainstream media had the only authority and means to opine on anything that could reach a very large number of people, they controlled the flow of opinions and hence, perceptions.

But when people got the same power, to a lesser degree of reach, but with the much real potential of the network-effect, the opinions shared by people also framed the way people see or observe or hear about the same things that mainstream media opined on.

Now, regardless of boycott calls, a film succeeds if it is good, and people spread positive word-of-mouth about it. This happened to Dangal, which faced a similar prospect because Aamir Khan had uttered his famous ‘intolerance’ statement before the release. The film succeeded because people liked watching it, not because of a controversy.

This worked differently for Padmavat. The controversy was not over its actors’ affiliations or utterances, but about the film’s content that one segment of people were opposed to. That curiosity, plus the film’s inherent strengths, perhaps led to more people wanting to watch the film. In a way, the people protesting, promoted the movie even more, in a demonstration of the Streisand Effect.

But my point in this post is less about the after-effects of the supposed-promotional stunt and more about whether it was a stunt or not.

A stunt implies that the person engaging in it is disingenuous. That, in this case, Deepika visited JNU only to promote her film, by faking her support to the protesting students outside JNU, fully aware that this would keep her in the limelight, 3 days before her film’s release. And this becomes ‘clearer’ because her PR firm circulated photos of her visit to the media.

I have had this conundrum about PR earlier. Why do brands do PR around CSR? If they do PR, is that CSR effort sincere? Or is it being done only to garner the attention that PR gives them? This is a chicken and egg situation.

One way to rationalize the PR outreach is to look at the actual effect of that CSR work. If it really is happening, and people are benefiting out of it, why shouldn’t the brand benefit too, in terms of PR and the resultant goodwill? If the brand benefits, does it diminish the CSR effort? Not at all. The problem occurs when the brand starts with PR in mind and does a shoddy job of the actual CSR effort.

Similarly, did Deepika support the protesting JNU students because she felt that is the right thing to do, according to her? Or, did she do it so that she could bring her movie to limelight, 3 days before the release? Does the fact that her PR agency shared photos of her appearance diminish her act of showing solidarity with the students?

Another instance: for my book on personal branding using social media, in which one chapter is dedicated to Anand Mahindra’s use of Twitter, as a demonstration of a lot of things I explained, I researched on all his tweets over a 10 year period. I noticed that he tends to gravitate towards a few chosen topics, again and again. Two such topics are ‘women empowerment’ and ‘rain’.

Every time you see a tweet from Anand on women empowerment, do you assume that he genuinely cares for the topic, and that’s why he is tweeting about it? What if I told you that Mahindra Group has a very famous campaign called Nanhi Kali, that started in 1996 and supports education for underprivileged girls in India? Is he promoting Nanhi Kali indirectly by talking about various instances of women empowerment?

Or, every time you see a tweet from Anand on how he is enjoying the rain/monsoon, so you presume that he genuinely likes rain? What if I told you that Mahindra Group is the largest manufacturer of tractors in the world, and also has a lot of interest in seed technology? Is he indirectly promoting those interests because they all talk about the same end-consumer – farmers?

Now, until Anand or Deepika confess to you what their true intent was/is, you could only keep guessing about it. At least in Deepika’s case, considering no other A-lister had made their presence felt offline (many tweeted their support to the students, and disgust for the armed, masked violent terrorists in the University), she stands to lose a lot of goodwill. Not just in terms of the movie boycott, but also in terms of being on the bad books of the all-powerful Government (no matter which party rules, Governments do have enormous power) that could manifest into other kinds of trouble. She could also face a boycott-call of the products she chooses to endorse, and hence brands may deem her ‘unsafe’ as a brand ambassador, despite her potential as a big influencer.

Yet, there she was, outside JNU. And her PR firm did share photos of her presence. Both are true, though one need not diminish or negate the other.

Next, let us address the social media trends. Not only did Spice PR circulate photos of her JNU visit, but there were also online hashtags that appeared on Twitter to support Deepika’s visit.

The most prominent hashtag was #ISupportDeepika, to counter the #boycottchhapaak hashtag.

Who initiated the #boycottchhapaak hashtag? That’s easy enough to guess. But who created the #ISupportDeepika hashtag? Ironically, that hashtag was first used in 2013, far removed from the current controversy and innocuously. I’m sure it’d have been used extensively during the Padmavat controversy too.

Some of the specific sentences that were more commonly tweeted (copied and pasted, in other words) were:

If these tweets were sent by a PR firm, or if there was any organized effort to seed them, it is usually done through multiple influencers. A simple example is how the Government seeds the same sentence through multiple Ministers, who all say the same thing. Most such organized PR efforts in creating a trend, don’t restrict themselves to just one starting point (or just one influencer). In these cases, though, the starting tweet (by one person) seems to have outsized engagement. One of them is even by Filmfare, which people seem to have copied and pasted to show their support.

The starting tweet of the above 5 sentences. Notice the phenomenally high engagement under each tweet that denotes that they were the initiators.

If this was a PR effort, it is poor in execution given it is not carpet-bombed in the first instance and instead ‘offered’ to just one individual to seed.

But, beyond the alleged seeding, let’s consider what is wrong with such seeding… if at all it was.

The Government can seed such trends. The people opposed to Deepika’s visit to JNU can (even sharing the same canceled film ticket!). But people who want to show support to Deepika’s stand cannot? Why?

Why should only the boycott campaign be organized? Why can’t the rival faction be organized too? If it is, does it blot her visit and support to the students protesting outside JNU? How, and why? If the allegation that copy-paste trending is an indication of an insincere movement, that could backfire spectacularly on the Government too, which creates such copy-paste movement online almost every single day!

And if you look at the antecedents or political affiliations of the initiators above and conclude they are all anti-Government, what did you expect them to be, really? They have to be anti-Government to start this, just like people who call for boycotts have to be pro-Government by default and expectation.

The allegation is that they did not come together magically and organically on their own, but they were made to come together by Deepika’s PR team. That is inconclusive given that the seeding was done through a single person in each of the 5 cases above, but even if you assume that it was all organized, so what? Once again, if Governments can organize such PR efforts to prop their messaging, why shouldn’t rival factions? If rival factions coming together in an organized manner somehow make you question the seriousness of the movement as being insincere, why not use the same logic when Governments organize such trends?