Death Becomes Her

While a lot of people have faked their own deaths, Poonam Pandey may be the first person in the history of humanity to have faked her own death as part of an organized (marketing) campaign. The agency behind this initiative —Schbang, along with Hauterrfly, and Fork Media—wants to frame it as an awareness campaign, but let’s not get into a debate on the nomenclature. All marketing campaigns include raising awareness about something anyway.

Even when the news of her (now fake) death started to appear online on February 2, 2024, there were more than enough replies to her own Instagram post (announcing her death) that asked if this was a campaign.

Did she or someone from her team react to them? Of course not. Why? Both she and the brand behind it—Hauterrfly, a millennial woman’s space, as they call themselves—wanted people to truly believe she was dead.

Barring the online media that usually run stories quickly based on social media posts, most print media (which would publish the news only the next day) did seek clarity on the story from Poonam’s team. Why? Because she has been known to make such sensationalist claims to be in the news. Poonam’s team doubled down on the lie and confirmed that she was indeed dead. After all, they really wanted people, including the media, to report that she was actually dead.

After the reveal, there are a lot of views for and against the campaign’s tactic. The most common ones:

1. Brave campaign that penetrated the national consciousness in just one day
2. Look at the results (Google search trends)
3. The ends justify the means

1. Seriously? Faking death for marketing?
2. Unethical across functions: advertising/marketing, social media, public relations
3. Insults women (and their families) who have died because of cervical cancer

Allow me to address all of these points together.

Is this a brave campaign? Most definitely, it is – there is no doubt about that. But consider why this is brave. It is brave because no other agency dared to pull this off.

A lot of things have been faked in the past in the name of marketing:
Dulquer Salman faked ‘sleeplessness’ (for iQOO, a phone brand. He was sleepless because of how exciting the new phone was, it seems).
Arbaaz Khan and Malaika Arora faked divorce (for Pond’s).
Shah Rukh Khan faked vandalism outside his house (for his film ‘Fan’).
Kajol faked a tough trial in life (for a Hotstar show where she plays a lawyer facing a tough ‘trial’ at Court).
Harsha Bhogle faked kidnapping/abduction (for Fantasy Akhada).
Monster and Fever FM faked their brands’ demise (for relaunch/rebranding).
Snoop Dogg recently faked that he’s giving up smoking (for a smoke-free stove).

If so many brands can fake a whole range of things, what is one more fake – someone’s death, by that person herself? It’s for a ’cause’, after all.

Do you really think no other agency would have considered this fake as an idea worth implementing? Hardly. It’s not a new idea anyway. So why hasn’t any other agency executed such an idea? The reason is obvious: they would have discussed it and decided that faking one’s death, no matter the cause, is taking things a bit too far. It clearly crosses a line. It sets up a wrong precedent. It is categorically unethical since it also involves convincing the media in follow-up interactions that the death is indeed real. That goes against the very tenets of ‘public relations’ where the ‘relations’ imply that it is an ongoing interaction based on mutual trust and honesty.

If Poonam had simply posted one Instagram post, went incommunicado, and the media simply reported both her post and their doubts, that would be one way to handle things directly and honestly. It leaves things open for interpretation. This is precisely what Snoop Dogg did in November when he announced on his social media feeds that he was ‘giving up smoking’. He did not send a follow-up press release or clarifications confirming the statement. He posted it and left it at that letting the media do the questioning (without any responses from him).

But in Poonam’s case, her team sent a follow-up statement when the media reached out to them. They confirmed her death. That crosses a second line.

Consider this ad by Ogilvy NYC for Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Don’t you think Ogilvy would have loved throw away all this humor and go straight to a celebrity willing to fake her/his own death and jumpstart Google Searches for colorectal cancer screening in just 24 hours? But what do you think stopped them, and instead, opted for a creatively worded, humorous conversation between an old father and his 45-year-old son? Why go through all this, when there was a brave option staring at them? After all, no brand was involved and the cause was noble, wasn’t it?

The reason is this: Advertising (and by extension marketing) involves creativity and creativity involves exaggeration, not outright deception. You can stretch the truth in the name of exaggeration, but when there is no truth at all, that is clearly deception… falsehood.

Consider the Snoop Dogg stunt. He said he was ‘quitting smoking’. There was no follow-up on what kind of smoking he meant. We were free to assume whatever we wanted. In the end, he did ‘quit smoking’ in an exaggerated way, because of the smoke-free stove he was promoting. Did he lie? Nope. He exaggerated. That’s the difference.

Now, what about the results?

Schbang, the agency behind this gimmick had shared a non-apology on Instagram after noticing the spike in negative reactions (understandably) to the reveal. That post also included proof of success based on Google search trends.

Here’s a slightly larger picture using Google search trends. A lot more people searched for ‘Poonam Pandey’ than ‘cervical cancer’. Why?

Again, simple and obvious reason: Poonam Pandey is a famously controversial celebrity famous for being famous. If she died at the age of 32, without a hint of any cancer-related treatment or ailment even the day before, people would obviously be curious about the disease that caused her death.

What else should one expect? Or, what else did Schbang expect? That there are very few searches for ‘cervical cancer’? This is not a normal creative campaign where the agency needs to wait with bated breath about how the reactions would be, to their ‘creative’ idea. The reaction in this case is literally foregone and inevitable.

So, to showcase Google trends as a yardstick for success is adequately pointless because that is the most obvious and expected reaction from people.

Where does this reaction come from? From our innate curiosity, fear, and to some extent, empathy too. A 32-year-old, otherwise healthy person dying suddenly would instill not just curiosity (“Whoa! How did that happen?”), but also fear (“Cervical cancer? I don’t even know what ‘cervical’ means. Let me Google it”), and empathy (“God, so young! Is there some preventive methods that I can tell my loved ones? Let me Google”).

This is exactly what happened when Puneet Rajkumar died of a heart attack on October 29, 2021. What would the Google search trends have looked like? Very similar – high interest in Puneet and ‘heart attack’. But it was not a campaign by an agency. It was a natural, sad occurrence and it organically led to the search interest, again, out of curiosity, fear, and empathy.

What Schbang has done here is take a shortcut and jump-start the interest.

So, there’s absolutely no meaning in showcasing Google search trends because it was completely along expected lines. It’s a tactic guaranteed to go massively viral and despite such a guarantee think about why no other agency has ever used this tactic!

This tactic was available to any and every agency out there. But only one decided that it was worth crossing the line because… ‘the ends justify the means’.

Think about everything that can be justified with ‘the ends justify the means’. Who gets to decide the ends, the means? There are established lines that the marketing industry collectively doesn’t cross.

Shah Rukh Khan faked vandalism outside his home in Mumbai via a tweet. He could use ‘ends justify the means’ by offering the logic that the film’s success would help 100+ families that have worked hard on it. Does that end justify the deception? Livelihood, like life, is a good enough justification, right?

Or consider the current flavor of the season: Deepfakes.

How about we have an ad agency create a deepfake of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and make him say something about cervical cancer and ask every Indian woman to take the screening test? After all, anything he says goes viral instantly.

Would it be wrong to do this without his permission? But it is well-meaning. If his fake pronouncements on cervical cancer create massive search interest on cervical cancer, the ends would justify the means, right? Who knows… he may notice the deepfake and may offer his blessing too, since it’s for a good cause, right?

After all, both Paytm and Reliance Jio used his photo, without the permission of the Prime Minister’s Office, in their full-page ads (for which they apologized; the fine for such an action is a princely sum of Rs. 500, as per the rules). At least those ads were for the brands; in the case of this deepfake, it would be for a noble cause, right?

So, why wouldn’t any agency suggest this idea?

The answer, in simple terms, would be: It is wrong.

That covers the entire gamut of lack of ethics, use of shock tactics, use of deception, and lying, among others.

Or, consider the pulse polio campaign (by Ogilvy). It featured Amitabh Bachchan, and was widely lauded as being instrumental in dramatically increasing the uptake in preventive drops being administered to Indian children. It was a sustained campaign that worked hard by doing all the things right – creativity (in multiple Indian languages) and repetition (multiple media usage, mainly offline since it predates the digital/social media era).

Wouldn’t it have been easier for the Govt. to sign up a celebrity and let her/him fake the death of their (or someone’s child), only to reveal that it was a stunt to promote interest in polio drops? Why take all the hard effort to sustain a campaign? Why not use the easy way out?

Now, about the 3rd reason under ‘Against’ – that this tactic is an insult to the women (and their families) who have suffered due to cervical (or any) cancer. Cancer is a ‘family suffering’ these days. It involves the patient and the family trying to cope with the new reality of a family member struggling with it. The treatments are difficult, painful, expensive, isolating, tiring, time-consuming, and a lot more.

So many well-meaning institutions have been working hard to create awareness of multiple types of cancers for a long time, with as much creativity as they can muster through their agency partners. Some of these campaigns are rather functional and conventional. A lot of campaigns around breast cancer are hugely creative. But the larger fact is that they are all trying, within socially established limits of ethics and common decency, to do their best.

Every one of them has the same opportunity – to jump-start interest in their chosen cancer by faking someone’s death and revealing it to be an attention-seeking stunt. But they do not go to that extent because they also understand that we are talking about a life-threatening disease where there is a tremendous amount of suffering and pain.

The normal reaction from anyone who has seen or heard about such suffering, to a suggestion about faking someone’s death to jump-start interest, would be one of being aghast, for understandable reasons. “Is that the only way? Can’t you try something that does not involve such a blatant deception? The suffering is real and in this stunt, the person who is faking the death is not suffering anything, but, in fact, getting more famous for being famous?”, would be the overall reasoning.

There is always an option to do things ethically. Most people choose that option – many out of fear of repercussions, and many out of the simple fact that it is the right thing to do.

From an agency standpoint, these would come up if such ideas as discussed and debated. If the agency chose to put the foregone result of the Google search trends shooting up over every other fully intended result, that is a conscious choice they have to live with alongside the many denouncements that would, no doubt, come their way.

The real way to gauge the success of this campaign would be to look back at it after say, 6 months or so. If more people remember ‘cervical cancer’ than Poonam Pandey, that is one indication of success. Chances are, a lot more people would remember Poonam Pandey and may struggle to remember the fake cause that killed her. The Google search trends (Poonam Pandey vs. cervical cancer) are an early indicator of this eventuality. Unlike Puneet Rajkumar where anyone who remembers him would also remember the cause of his death.

Reason? Puneet Rajkumar died. Ponnam Pandey merely faked death.