05 November 2015 11:01:01 IST

Can Kurl-on strike the right balance?

The ad campaign must highlight the ‘bounce’ factor while keeping in mind ethical considerations

In May 2014, Ogilvy & Mather India (O&M), one of the leading advertising agencies in India, found itself in the eye of a storm over a Kurl-on ad it had created to highlight the product proposition of bouncy mattresses. The ad, one in a series of three print ads titled ‘Bounce Back’, featured a string of cartoon images of Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani student activist who was shot and injured seriously by the Taliban.

The ad depicted Malala being shot in the head, falling backward covered in blood, being put on a drip, then bouncing off a Kurl-on mattress and recovering to accept the Nobel Peace Prize. The ad sparked global outrage and was widely criticised as being offensive and for using a horrific tragedy to hard sell a product.

About O&M

O&M, one of the leading advertising, marketing and PR agencies in the world, had more than 500 offices in 126 countries globally as of 2015. The New York-based agency was founded in 1948 by David Ogilvy, considered the father of advertising.

According to its founder, an advertiser’s job was to come up with advertising that sells, and the advertising that sells best was advertising that built brands. Over the years, O&M has created some brilliant ads with catchy punch-lines and unique concepts that earned it accolades from all quarters. It built some of the most recognisable brands in the world, including Ford, Shell, Barbie, Pond’s, Dove, IBM and Kodak.

In India, O&M is headquartered in Mumbai. It is headed by Piyush Pandey, the agency’s Executive Chairman and Creative Director of India and South Asia operations. Pandey has been with O&M since 1982. O&M is a leading ad agency in India and the creative mind behind successful brands such as Vodafone, Cadbury, Asian Paints and Fevicol.

About Kurl-on

Kurl-on, headquartered in Bangalore, is one of the largest producers of mattresses in India. The company’s products include mattresses, pillows, furniture and other home décor products. ‘More bounce and less wear and tear’, is the unique selling proposition (USP) of Kurl-on mattresses.

The company also exports its products to a number of countries. In 2014, to retain its position as the major player in the Indian mattress market and to enhance its global presence, Kurl-on repositioned itself by emphasising the ‘bounce’ attribute of its mattresses.

The campaign

The Kurl-on ads sought to convey the message that a good night’s sleep on a spring mattress helped a person recover remarkably, both mentally and physically, from any kind of damage. Kurl-on wanted to highlight the ‘bounce’ attribute of its mattresses by linking them to famous personalities who had bounced back in life after major setbacks. O&M decided to use three iconic figures who were globally acclaimed and were looked up to – Mahatma Gandhi, Apple Inc.’s founder Steve Jobs, and Malala – for the three ads. To add a touch of humour, the characters in the ads were depicted as cartoons.

The Malala ad sought to show how she had bounced back after being brutally shot by the Taliban. As a young girl, Malala had defied the Taliban after the group issued a fatwa banning the education of girls in Pakistan. She became a major advocate for women’s right to education and an inspiration for many as she continued defying the Taliban despite receiving death threats. On October 9, 2012, Taliban terrorists shot the 14-year-old Malala in the head. It was only after months of surgeries in the UK and rehabilitation that she was able to make a full recovery. Thereafter, Malala became a global youth icon.

The other two ads that were part of the campaign showed a young Gandhi being thrown out of the train and bouncing back to become the Father of the Nation, and Steve Jobs bouncing back after he was kicked out of Apple. The punch-line for all the three ads read ‘Bounce Back’. According to O&M, the ads depicted how successful people bounced back in life by turning adversities to their advantage and going on to become legends. The ad agency felt that “bounce back”, as a figure of speech, also lent itself effortlessly to the spring mattress category.

In May 2014, in order to enter the Kyoorius Advertising and Digital awards, O&M uploaded the ads on the online forum Ads of the World.

The backlash

The ad featuring Malala went viral. The ad, which was reportedly not run in any paid media, spread like wildfire across the Web. It drew flak from all quarters for its content, which was found to be offensive and in bad taste. The gory images used in the ad did not go down well, either with social media users or the international media. It was widely panned on social media platforms such as Twitter for the insensitive portrayal of a tragedy faced by a young girl. The ad was also condemned by human rights activists who called it morally wrong and an inhuman portrayal of a tragedy to sell mattresses.

Some industry observers felt that though O&M had come up with a creative idea to promote the ‘bounce’ feature of the mattress, the ads could have been executed without making caricatures of famous people.

However, some others felt that the ad was not insensitive and did not trivialise Malala, as alleged. According to them, the whole idea of bouncing back from an ordinary person to someone the world respected was brilliant and not offensive. Also, the connection to the brand itself was not weak, as sleep is actually an under-rated factor in living well and accomplishing goals.

Some analysts pointed out that the ad celebrated the human spirit and that Malala had been chosen to represent the determination of the human will. They felt that, sometimes, ad agencies had to push a few boundaries and break a few rules to convey a point. They also lamented that people had begun to take offence at the slightest of things.

The aftermath

Faced with shrill criticism, O&M pulled down the ads and Kurl-on decided against releasing them formally. In a statement, O&M also tendered an apology to Malala and her family and said that the company deeply regretted the incident. It said the ads run by the India office were contrary to the beliefs and professional standards of O&M and its clients. The agency also vowed to investigate how its standards were compromised and promised to take the necessary corrective action.

Looking ahead

However, O&M’s India head, Piyush Pandey, said that the ads were legitimate and refused to accept that anything wrong had been done. Nevertheless, the debate over the Kurl-on ads raised many questions for advertisers, in general, and O&M, in particular. Some experts were of the opinion that though creativity knew no boundaries, ad agencies had to be careful while treading the line between creativity and being offensive. The question before them was: How do ad agencies do this fine balancing job of creatively communicating a message without being offensive?

Your brief

If you were the creative head of O&M, how would you creatively convey the message of the bounce in Kurl-on’s mattress, without coming across as offensive (as was the case with the Malala ad). Please write a concept note on the campaign you would conceive of for Kurl-on. Your note can outline your rationale for the campaign and also emphasise the copy line around the theme of your campaign. The idea should be for a print campaign.

What you have to submit:

1. A concept note on the print campaign you have conceived for Kurl-on

2. Your rationale for the suggested campaign

3. The copy line you suggest around the theme of your campaign

This case study was developed at IBS Centre for Management Research (IBS Hyderabad) by Syeda Maseeha Qumer (Consultant, Case Research Centre) and Debapratim Purkayastha (Associate Dean, IBS Hyderabad). This case was compiled from published sources, and is intended to be used as a basis for class discussion rather than to illustrate either effective or ineffective handling of a management situation.)