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Faking deaths and kidnapping stunts: Are influencers pushing marketing gimmicks too far?

Faking deaths and kidnapping stunts: Are influencers pushing marketing gimmicks too far?

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Last week, Indian influencer, model and actress Poonam Pandey made headlines for faking her death. The fake death was part of a campaign raising awareness on cervical cancer by agency Schbang. The stunt gathered mass attention from many internet users, most of which have negatively impacted Pandey's brand sentiments. This then led to the agency later apologising for the distress, but at the same time, emphasizing that the campaign successfully met its objective: to spread awareness.

Don't miss: Indian influencer cops flak for faking death in cervical cancer publicity stunt 

The agency said, "The act by Pandey led to cervical cancer and its related terms being one of the most searched topics on Google [...] We understand that our methods may have sparked debate about the approach. While we regret any destress caused, if the move results in spreading much needed awareness and preventing deaths, that would be its real impact."

In a conversation with MARKETING-INTERACTIVE, professionals in the influencer marketing industry in Singapore and Malaysia said they were torn on Pandey and Schbang's stunt. 

Nirote Chaweewannakorn, head of talents in Southeast Asia of Gushcloud International said that he has "nothing against the concept". The issue, in his opinion, was that Pandey had left it for "far too long before revealing its real intention". Chaweewannakorn added that successful stunts of similar nature had immediately revealed the true intention at the end of the content. This showed good intention and left no room for misinterpretation, said Chaweewannakorn.

"Overall I believe the execution is the issue, not the concept itself. Stunts like this create the biggest impact, unfortunately, they also come with a lot of risks," added Chaweewannakorn. 

Kausern Hieu, CEO of Nuffnang Malaysia, on the other hand, is of the opinion that the stunt was a creative and attention-grabbing way to raise awareness. This is especially since consumers on social media have been desensitised. Hieu can empathise that this campaign was designed to jolt individuals out of their complacency and provoke meaningful conversations. However, the end does not justify the means. 

This is especially since Pandey had lied, faked her death and took audiences on a dishonest emotional rollercoaster. "This only hurts the influencer with the current backlash and may potentially ruin her credibility for future brand opportunities. Her audience may be less likely to believe the things she will say due to the shattered trust, thus reducing her effectiveness as an influencer," said Hieu.

The impact of publicity stunts

While the move has undoubtedly gotten attention, such a stunt may raise concerns amongst using influencers for future campaigns given consumers are already losing trust in them, according to a January 2024 report by Impact.com.

Similarly, a report in October 2023 found that trust significantly outweighed other factors as reasons for following influencers. 72% of surveyed consumers cited authenticity behind their reasons to trust influencer recommendations, demonstrating how genuine and trusted recommendations are pivotal in shaping consumer behaviour.

That said, what professionals in the influencer marketing industry can fully agree upon is how this stunt affects Pandey's credibility and trust amongst her followers. 

The business of influencing is built on the foundation of trust.

As much as Hieu believes in the cause, such a method to raise awareness about cervical cancer is deceiving and even bordering irresponsible to the influencer’s followers and concerned citizens in general, added Hieu.

"Such an act will only hurt the trust and goodwill that the influencer has built overtime with her followers," Hieu said.

Yuh Wen Foong, founder of Sushi Vid, shares a similar view, adding that "the act of orchestrating a negative publicity stunt carries significant risks. In this instance, faking one's death, required no effort from the influencer's end and have inflicted immense pain on her followers. Ultimately, such actions betray the trust of followers and are perceived as insensitive, particularly when motivated by financial gain." 

In some extreme cases, influencers can look at jail time. Earlier this week, Taiwanese influencer Chen Neng-Chuan, also known as GoodNight Chicken was sentenced for faking his kidnapping, according to media reports.

Chen creates videos about 'paranormal activities' on social media and had reportedly staged a forced abduction and escape on his Instagram live feed with his friend Lu Tsu-hsien. 

Chen arrived the coastal city of Sihanoukville in Cambodia, an area that has become notorious for gangs kidnapping people and then forcing them to carry out online scams. On 11 February, Chen reportedly showed viewers what he claimed as "the world's darkest corner" where "many Taiwanese have been cheated and enslaved". 

The next day, Chen livestreamed himself sneaking into a scam call centre and was believed to have been attacked by a man dressed in military uniform. The video was cut short when the camera fell to the ground, said media reports. During which, his wife had also reportedly posted on social media that her husband had gone missing.

On 13 February, Chen returned to livestream, claiming he had escaped from the scam call centre. In the video, Chen had reportedly claimed that he was captured by several armed men who tasered him, shaved his head and robbed him of US$3,500. Viewers became suspicious as to why the alleged kidnappers allowed Chen to keep his livestreaming equipment but robbed him of cash. 

Soon after, the police arrested Chen and Lu in their hotel rooms and found that they had faked the entire incident. The police discovered that Chen’s crew bought props, such as military outfits, fake guns and fake blood. Both men were found guilty on charges of incitement to cause chaos to social security, and were sentenced to two years in prison. They were also fined KHR4 million.

The right approach

This doesn't mean publicity stunts should be avoided completely. It must, however, be done tactfully. Afterall, successful partnerships should always aim for a win-win scenario, said Foong.

When approaching sensitive topics such as death and serious illnesses such as cancer, influencers should prioritise empathy, sensitivity, and authenticity.

Rather than exploiting these issues for attention, influencers could educate, raise awareness, and provide support to those affected, said Foong.

"One way to do this with more empathy is sharing real-life experiences of grief over loss of a loved one. It may not have the shock value as the "faking death" version, but it's much more respectful," she added.

Additionally, influencers should be mindful of cultural differences and societal norms, as perceptions of sensitive topics can vary widely across different regions and communities.

Join us this coming 24 - 25 April for #Content360, a two-day extravaganza centered around four core thematic pillars: Explore with AI; Insight-powered strategies; Content as an experience; and Embrace the future. Immerse yourself in learning to curate content with creativity, critical thinking, and confidence with us at Content360!

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