Budweiser India had a marketing misfire in April this year when they got Messi portraits painted over existing street art in Mumbai and Delhi. It was widely called out as a ‘hijack’ where commercial advertising hijacked over organic street art.
However, the brand used its Twitter handle all through May 2021 to amplify pleas for help and emergency calls for medicines and hospital beds. They could have simply paused all kinds of social media posts and entered into a silent period like many other brands that were unsure if they can market their wares during the worst period India was facing in the 2nd wave. But they chose to actively help, regardless of how big their Twitter reach was (it’s not much, but as a brand, they do command a presence).
But now, Budweiser India seems to have done it again – this time, using social media and influencer marketing.
Ironically, I recall reading about Budweiser India onboarding a new influencer agency just last week.
I do not know if the same agency is responsible for this latest misfire, but an Exchange4Media report on this issue mentions that they reached out to both Budweiser India and Voxxy Media, and both refused to comment.
So what did Budweiser India do?
It asked influencers to post a photo of themselves along with someone who works at their home and add a message about helping them secure a vaccination slot on CoWIN.
A few influencers who refused to participate had also shared the brief from the agency that also incentivized the influencers with free beer and t-shirt.
To be fair, Budweiser’s public-facing ask is not the same: the public-facing pitch is simply that a CoWIN registration offers 1 + 3 people to be registered and that you and 3 more ‘buds’ could register and get vaccinated. And if you send a 1 + 3 pic, Budweiser India may send you branded merchandise. This seems innocuous enough and aimed at improving the vaccination rates in India, much like many other branded efforts towards vaccination across the world.
But the influencer leg of the campaign seems vastly different in terms of the ask, for some bizarre reason.
Understandably, there has been enough condemnation for this campaign idea and tactic that Budweiser India has pulled down their own posts and shares about the campaign as also their partnered post on the Humans of Bombay Instagram channel that featured actor Sanjana Sanghi of Dil Bechara fame.
There are so many things wrong with Budweiser’s influencer campaign idea and it is baffling that the client and agency teams did not think this through by questioning the idea and tactics.
1. At the outset, the idea seems straight out of the Korean film Parasite, reeking of classism. One could argue that the end result is a good cause – that the influencers are helping those who work at their homes secure a CoWIN slot for vaccination, and that we need more people to be vaccinated now. But then the question is, do the influencers need to talk about the ‘help’ performed too?
This goes back to the charity/CSR question I often contend with: when someone or some company/organization performs a good deed, does their sharing that deed on social media makes it narcissistic? That is one angle to consider this, but the other is this: if that act of sharing influences or inspires more people to follow suit, then is that narcissistic act somehow worth it? After all, the ends may outweigh one person’s so-called narcissistic act, is the assumption.
I used to believe in the narcism framing earlier, but increasingly believe that the end result makes the effort worth it if it gathers more people to do the same. This is usually the case when someone donates online and shares it online.
But in the case of Budweiser’s campaign, the influencers are promoting an unrelated brand while performing their ‘help’. Given the dire situation around us with the multiple waves of the virus, we should be helping as many disadvantaged people secure CoWIN slots, paying for them and helping them on our own, without trying to make it part of a brand’s promotional plan.
The same logic applies to brands that offer a publicity-led condition to perform an act of charity: “When we hit 500 Likes/Retweets, we will feed the hungry children” (or something to that effect). The simple point is that the feeding of hungry children should not be conditional to the brand getting adequate publicity for the effort. Similarly, securing CoWIN slot or paying for someone’s (particularly those who are economically disadvantaged) vaccination should not be conditional upon Budweiser India getting the credit for it.
2. The addition of the incentive makes the ask from Budweiser India seem far worse than what it already is when you consider that it goes to the influencers and not the economically disadvantaged people being featured along with them. The result is that they are treated as props for a brand’s marketing even as someone is bound to argue that ‘some good’ is coming out of it. That could well be the logic the client and agency may have used to green-light this campaign.
3. Then there is the question of consent and power equation. Why would a ‘watchman, security guard, house help, lift guard, driver, sweeper, waterman‘ (quoting from the brief) agree to pose for a photo that will be shared widely on social media channels? Is it because their employer is asking them to, and ‘what would happen if I refuse?’? Do they fully understand why their employer is asking to pose for a photo and that they are being asked to do so for something the Government is offering freely? And worse, are they aware that those who are asking to pose are getting free beer and t-shirt for their act of charity?
While I do not want to assume that all the influencers who took part in Budweiser’s campaign did not share all the details appropriately, I’m reasonably sure some may not have. But, to a large extent, the sharing of details could be akin to how we get ‘terms of service’ from social media platforms – the quick and impatient version says, “Your data will be shared with advertisers”. The detailed version that we usually scroll away quickly to get to the ‘I agree’ button has all the details that may not be entirely agreeable. The quick version is short for a reason.
Alcohol brands already have a lot of regulations to abide by in advertising and promotions that make their communications efforts difficult. The last thing they need is to run a classist online campaign that reeks of thoughtless tactics and highlights the privilege of influencers so explicitly.