Back in March 2008, the media was agog with a telephone chat audio recording purportedly by cricketer Sreesanth where he professed love for Priyanka Chopra. The media played it up significantly, as expected, till Sreesanth called for a press conference. Priyanka attended it too, and the media figured out that it was all part of a promo for 2 new soaps by Lux!
In April 2008, another HUL brand, Pond’s, pulled off something equally deceptive. The brand seeded the media with the rumor that Arbaaz Khan and Malaika Arora Khan are planning to split and Arbaaz was planning to remarry. As expected, the media went on a tizzy even as the two stars did not bother to refute or comment on the news. Eventually, it was all revealed to be a PR stunt for the launch of Pond’s Age Miracle.
In both these stunts, a false idea/notion was seeded among the media and the media became the carrier of fake news, in service of a brand narrative.
In July 2015, the media started reporting about a mysterious graffiti on the wall of Shah Rukh Khan’s house, Mannat. It said, ‘love you SRK c u on 15th’ and was signed, ‘Gaurav’.
Even as the media went to town about this mystery, Shah Rukh Khan himself expressed shock via a tweet!
A day later, the news was seeded to the media that this graffiti was part of the promotional campaign for the film ‘Fan’ which is about an obsessed fan of Shah Rukh Khan… named Gaurav, obviously!
What tips the scale here is that it was not just media that was party to, or fell prey to, the promotional stunt using fake news. Shah Rukh Khan himself added fuel to the fire by expressing fake remorse about the graffiti.
As I had written about this odd conundrum, 2 days later, Shah Rukh Khan tweeted about his kids.
One of those 2 tweets is false, and Shah Rukh Khan knew it. Yet, he mixed real and fake in his timeline.
Back when I had written about it, a lot of people commented that he is an actor and we shouldn’t take such stunts seriously since they are usually the norm.
A stunt, per se, isn’t an issue at all. They are common indeed, but the primary audience of such stunts is the media. The media is made a fool first, they go to town with fake news, and eventually, people get fooled into believing something categorically false.
Where the line was crossed is Shah Rukh Khan’s tweet where the real and fake intermingled in a really weird way.
But then, you can still argue that he is an actor and actors act all the time (do they?), whether in movies or on their Twitter timeline. And we, the people, need to be cognizant of which is which.
So what would happen when a non-actor pulls a stunt where the media is not involved?
Harsha Bhogle, of all people, did precisely that during an Instagram live session with Sportwalk, a sports media company.
Harsha Bhogle’s camera suddenly went hazy and it looked like someone had attacked Harsha.
In the immediate aftermath of that shocking video, people were left wondering what really happened to Harsha, on social media. The tone was one of genuine concern more than mere shock from a voyeuristic perspective.
Things went so bad that people started tweeting to Harsha’s son asking if his dad was fine.
That led to both Sportwalk and Harsha tweeting that he was fine, later that night, in quick succession.
Harsha’s son too tried to cool things down.
Now, consider the fact that Harsha is not an actor. Sure, he may have modeled for ads and those ads could have a script that he is enacting, but he is not known for his acting skills. He is known for his passionate interest in cricket, despite being a non-player!
So it is not surprising that people were concerned about Harsha’s well-being given how rudely he was interrupted and vanished off-screen.
It turns out that this may have been a pre-cursor prank to a fantasy cricket app called Fantasy Akhada! After all, the launch ad for the product that was released the next day (after Harsha went off-air dramatically) starts with the shot of a man with the face covered… and when the hood is removed, we see Harsha Bhogle!
To be sure, Harsha did not use his personal timeline to perform the stunt. He was speaking to a media outlet (Sportwalk) where he performed.
On his own timeline on Twitter, Harsha has been very cautious and transparent even in the past. I recall his 2018 tweet—much before ASCI came up with official disclaimer rules for online influencers—explaining his start of paid tweets.
I had written about his honest disclosure back then and he even replied to it pragmatically – it showed that he had given this topic some consideration before starting with the disclosure.
However, in the case of the latest prank where things went haywire, it seems like the promotional stunt was suggested to him as an idea and he took part in it like he would in a normal campaign. The only difference is that the vehicle that involved his performance was not clearly marked out as being promotional in nature. It was made to look like a normal conversation where Harsha is being himself.
So, despite severely underwhelming acting by the other guy (the host), more people were genuinely worried for Harsha’s well-being since it looked like he was really manhandled and yanked out of a non-promotional, serious conversation rudely.
As an idea, I quite like the chutzpah involved. But, in the zeal to make it seem as real as possible—that is, get as many people to seriously believe that Harsha Bhogle has been manhandled and kidnapped—the brand/agency inserted Harsha’s performance inside what was otherwise a normal, serious discussion that he is known for.
One can argue that that was the very point – to insert the act inside an otherwise normal conversation to make it as believable as it can be. Any other actor, instead of Harsha, people may have gotten over the immediate wonder and effortlessly assume that it was all part of the act. But Harsha was doing what he is known to be best before he was abducted – talk serious cricket. And he is not an actor.
It is to Harsha’s credit that people see him not as a performer but as a highly credible and intelligent individual in his field. They are willing to suspend disbelief when Harsha appears in what seems like explicit promotional material (like advertisements), but when he appears in a perfectly normal setting doing what he is known for, his performance could be construed as a serious incident worth triggering lots of worried reactions out of genuine affection for the man.
Thankfully, Harsha realized what had happened and tweeted a clarification even before the reveal could happen the next day.
There is a broader lesson in this episode for influencers, in particular. One kind of online influencer builds base/fame/followers by being open to any and every kind of promotional engagement regardless of what they are best known for. This is the online version of the movies-way of building influence – an actor acts any and every kind of role that comes their way, and then use that visibility and recognition gained to promote any/every kind of brand that comes their way/is willing to pay the requisite price considering their period of fame is mostly rather short-lived.
For such online influencers, when they perform, people may see through the act almost instantly. For these kinds of influencers, their timelines could co-exist with both performances and acts, and real-life happenings and observations.
But, for other influencers who have built their public profile using a particular talent that does not involve showbiz or acting, any performance that interjects otherwise normal engagements could backfire because people may see the performance as a real incident. This is not restricted to Harsha alone. Tomorrow, if, for instance, Shashi Tharoor were to perform a similar act while giving an interview to a media channel, the reactions would be similar.
As I had mentioned earlier, it’s precisely that shock value that brands and agencies would want to mine and gain attention. But, for people who have built credibility and trust in non-acting fields, performing to generate that shock value comes with the risk of losing some of that trust and credibility. Barring politicians, who seem to be totally immune to losing trust, and can perhaps gain it back with freebies and one election win, no other field seem to be safe from losing trust and winning it back. To be fair, public memory is short and people do forget such incidents.
But the media may not let it fly. For instance, when Malaika Arora and Arbaaz Khan were actually contemplating separating, a year before they did in 2017, the media was visibly skeptical about the news. Understandably so.
After all, the ‘Boy who cried wolf’ story is used as a lesson for a reason.
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