Wolf Gupta, the imaginary child

The Delhi High Court heard the arguments in the defamation case launched by Karan Bajaj, WhiteHat Jr’s founder, against Pradeep Poonia, yesterday.

Page 5 of the legal notice by Karan Bajaj has this:
advertisements concerning an imaginary child who the Plaintiffs christened “Wolf Gupta”

Let us take a look at the context in which this ‘child’ was used by WhiteHat Jr.

Is Wolf Gupta 9, 12, or 13? Why does his life seem like a mirror image of another 9-year-old, Ryan Venkat?

What is his salary at Google – Rs. 1.2 crores or 20 crores? Or, was it Rs. 150 crores from Google Video?

These are inconclusive as the company seems to be using the details of this child in a muddled way primarily because he doesn’t exist and is a figment of WhiteHat Jr’s imagination.

That, in itself, is not wrong. After all, advertisements feature assorted models spouting various things about the products or services being sold and we see them with that context – that is, the piece of advertising is a make-believe communication intended to show us a use-case. It is supposed to help us put ourselves in the shoes of the model and think of us as potential buyers too, at some point.

The trouble in the WhiteHat Jr. advertising is the 2nd part of the Wolf Gupta story – that he has been hired by Google.

Let me explain the problem with some imaginary examples (in the spirit of WhiteHat Jr’s own imaginary character):

Imaginary example 1:

“Digen Verma, aged 10, aced the Common Entrance Test and joined Indian Institute of Management Bengaluru, becoming the youngest student at the prestigious management institute. At age 12, he got through the campus placement with a starting salary of Rs. 1.2 crores. Do you want your 10-year-old to clear the Common Entrance Test? Enroll them at LaalTopi today!”

Imaginary example 2:

“Balbir Pasha, aged 10, aced the Common Entrance Test and joined a prestigious management institute, becoming their youngest student. At age 12, he got through the campus placement and joined ICICI Bank with a starting salary of Rs. 1.2 crores. Do you want your 10-year-old to clear the Common Entrance Test? Enroll them at KathaiTopi today!”

Digen Verma and Balbir Pasha are imaginary characters but Indian Institute of Management Bengaluru and ICICI Bank are real. And they are not the ones advertising.

The specific problem in WhiteHat Jr’s advertising is that they mix the unreal with the real. So, while ‘Wolf Gupta’ is fictitious (which was not declared by the company till they mentioned it in the legal notice), ‘Google’ is not. That juxtaposition makes the viewers/audiences assume that the story is possibly real.

I believe the inspiration for ‘Wolf Gupta’ may be from Tanmay Bakshi, a Canadian kid who became an AI proponent for IBM Watson at a very young age (between 11-14). Seeking permission from Tanmay, getting his buy-in for featuring him in their advertising would cost WhiteHat Jr money. As a start-up looking to blitzscale those legitimate routes involving permission and/or paying the requisite price may not fall under ‘growth hacking’.

But in creating a character, the company seems to have deliberately mixed the realities to create an impression that the entire story is real.

This is fundamentally dishonest advertising, intended to deceive.

One could argue – doesn’t Madhuri Dixit act in an ad where she eats Maggi? Or, doesn’t Salman Khan act in an ad where he drinks Thums Up/Pepsi? Isn’t that deceptive too – do they really consume those products?

Or, how about Aamir Khan, who acts as a character in the PhonePe ad and says the character uses the service. The character doesn’t exist, like Wolf Gupta, right?

Yes, those are fictional stories too, and they may or may not be consuming/using those products. Aamir’s character too is imaginary, even though PhonePe is real, juxtaposing the real and unreal just like WhiteHat Jr.

But the difference there is that the products being promoted do belong to the companies that are advertising. They plotted the story, created characters to fit in the story, and paid for the advertising.

WhiteHat Jr does not own Google. They depend on the believability of Google’s existence to sell their larger fictional construct. Google should ideally have a big problem with deceptive advertising that uses its brand name, but they haven’t bothered about the misuse of its brand so far.

The broader problem with deceptive advertising is that it starts the communication on a false note, leading to the possibility that people may consider the entire service or product’s claims to be false/made-up too. But, ONLY if they knew that the fundamental/starting claim is false.

That Wolf Gupta is an imaginary character has never been disclosed by WhiteHat Jr till it was mentioned in the legal notice. They simply removed the deceptive advertising when Pradeep Poonia exposed the story as being a fake.

Withdrawal of the much-used advertisements (because they had been exposed, not because WhiteHat Jr had a change of heart) does not absolve the brand from deception. They did gain significantly because of the deception in terms of interest from parents who wanted a Wolf Gupta in their own homes, not realizing that the story is imaginary – so much that the company itself became a target of an acquisition by Byju’s for a storied sum.

WhiteHat Jr evaded paying the price for their deceptive communication only because nobody took them to task through the right channels. Pradeep Poonia’s approach may be wild-west style, but at least with the ‘Wolf Gupta’ angle, he had the right point and context.

It’s unfortunate that only Pradeep is paying for his method in questioning WhiteHat Jr, while WhiteHat Jr continues to evade responsibility or price for their deceptive and unscrupulous marketing and communication tactics.

They have merely been asked to remove their advertising by the Advertising Standard Council of India (ASCI), which is the only power the governing body has. And this pertained to their misleading advertisements where some element of the claims were true, but not the whole truth. That leads people to fill the gaps and that’s why they are misleading.

But WhiteHat Jr’s ‘Wolf Gupta’ advertising is not just misleading, but also deceptive. Consider the difference:

WhiteHat Jr ropes in Tanmay Bakshi, pays him the necessary fee, and uses him as an example in their ads where they showcase his journey as a 10-year-old who found his way into IBM. The ads add, “If you want your child to be like Tanmay too, enroll them at XYZ”. This is misleading because Tanmay did not study coding at WhiteHat and by using his career path, the brand wants parents to think Tanmay’s knowledge came from the service that is advertising.

Why is this is misleading?
– Tanmay is real
– his association with IBM is real
– but WhiteHat Jr does not have any role in either his knowledge or his IBM association
– the viewer is led to believe that there is perhaps a connection – hence, misleading.

In the case of Wolf Gupta advertising:
– the boy does not exist
– his job offer is imaginary
– his salary is imaginary
– Google is real and that is NOT the brand advertising.
– WhiteHat Jr is real but it has NOTHING whatsoever to do with the previous 4 points!

You may also argue – don’t fairness creams claim that someone using the cream gets a better paying job or a great gig as a singer? Isn’t that deceptive? Of course, it is. But take a closer look if the cream’s ad says they got a job in Google. Or, the gig they got was at MTV. They leave those specifics out precisely because that’s what differentiates misleading from deceptive.

When there is no truth in the advertising whatsoever and it doesn’t even relate in any way to the brand that is advertising, that is not just misleading, but utterly deceptive.