New Delhi: The aggressive promotion by Hindustan Unilever Ltd of its Lifebuoy product range as a shield against swine flu may be paying off as sales improve, but it’s drawing flak from some critics who say the ad campaign is misleading and an attempt to cash in on public fear of the potentially fatal infection.
Hindustan Unilever, or HUL, India’s largest consumer goods company by sales, is plugging Lifebuoy soaps and hand washes in newspaper advertisements as products “proven to protect from H1N1 type virus”. “Wash away swine flu germs,” goes the tag line on advertisements running across media platforms, including television and print.
The flu, transmitted by inhaling infected droplets expelled by coughing or sneezing or by contact with contaminated hands or objects, has claimed 508 lives in India, where at least 14,500 have tested positive for the H1N1 virus that causes the disease, PTI reported on Wednesday.
“To prevent spread, people should cover their mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing, stay home when they are unwell, clean their hands regularly, and avoid crowded areas,” says the World Health Organization on its website.
Lifebuoy sales seem to have won a lift as consumers take precautions to guard against the risk of swine flu, which claimed its first life in India in August when a Pune teenager died after being infected. “The ads are all over the media and it has definitely created an impact,” said a Gurgaon-based HUL distributor who didn’t want to be named. “The sales of Lifebuoy have gone up by at least 30-40% in the last four months.”
But HUL’s campaign hasn’t gone down well with some experts and consumer forums. “Washing hands with soap and water definitely reduces the chances of getting the flu, but promoting one brand as the solution is not fair,” said Dharam Prakash, secretary general, Indian Medical Association, which used to endorse Lifebuoy once. “These are all promotional strategies. Yes, we used to endorse Lifebuoy almost a decade ago, but not now,” he said.
Plugging in: The Lifebuoy website has a section devoted to swine flu.
Launched in 1894, Lifebuoy has been plugged in advertisements over the years as a product that stands for good health and hygiene. The website www.lifebuoy.com has a section devoted to swine flu.
“Playing on fear and psychology of consumers is an old trick used by marketeers to sell their product in time of crisis or emergency situation, and I think it is very unethical to do so,” said N. Bhaskara Rao, chairman, Centre for Media Studies, a New Delhi-based multidisciplinary research organization. “I strongly believe that until and unless a company has the Indian Medical Association or a related industry body to support the claim based on research, it should not be an advertisement.”
According to HUL, the campaign reinforces the “core proposition” of Lifebuoy as a shield against germs. “Lifebuoy has been successfully tested in an internationally recognized lab on effectiveness in protecting against influenza type A H1N1 (swine flu) virus and that is the basis of the claim made by us,” a spokesperson for HUL said. The spokesperson declined to disclose how much money HUL had spent on the campaign, saying the company doesn’t report advertising spending on individual brands.
Nitin Paranjpe, HUL’s chief executive officer and managing director, spoke at the India Economic Summit on Tuesday about the “keep your hands clean” campaign. Paranjpe said the campaign was part of the company’s concept of “doing well while doing good”. “So we want to do good to society, but we want to do in a manner that will also be good for our business,” he said.
Future Brands managing director and chief executive Santosh Desai says swine flu has immediate currency, so it’s understandable—and effective— when brands communicate the message that consumers should wash their hands to guard against the virus.
“But when brands exaggerate a claim by representing the brand as the only solution to the problem, which in this case is swine flu, then the ad becomes dodgy and consumers need to be protected from such messages,” he said.
To be sure, HUL has its supporters, including the Advertising Standards Council of India, which is for encouraging any ad spreading health awareness.