What makes AK vs AK's content strategy outstanding

For the last week of December 2020, Hamsini Shivakumar, Founder, Leapfrog Strategy Consulting, writes that relying on branded content to promote something as capital-intensive as a film is not risky. In fact, it may pay off better in the long run

Hamsini Shivakumar
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The marketing for AK vs AK, the black-comedy thriller film starring Anil Kapoor and Anurag Kashyap that released on Netflix last week, has been popping up all over the place. It began with an orchestrated spat that involved the two actors comically ragging on each other through an exchange of tweets, and continued with messages on billboards and video collaborations with other public figures, who helped them craft their insults.

And audiences seem to love it.


What has generated such a positive response? If you go through the comments, you’ll see some reasons already articulated by the audience.

There’s the nostalgia, evoked through ’90s references, especially with the reunion of Anil Kapoor and Jackie Shroff, and through a reunion of the AIB team, brought together to help Anurag Kashyap create his ‘diss’ track. The Ram Lakhan jodi brought back memories from the viewers’ childhood and seeing almost the entire team of AIB together again reminded them of their fondness for goofy irreverence.

There’s also how well integrated the campaign is, with the branded content incorporating subtle references on the basis of the communication already put out through marketing that preceded it. Thus, creating more meaningful engagement for viewers who feel triumph on spotting the hidden messages instead of having everything spelled out for them.


(‘Hairy Actor’ is a reference to Anurag Kashyap’s tweet taking a dig at Anil Kapoor’s chest hair)

But what about the reasons that audiences have perhaps been able to sense but not articulate in their response? Like the move away from everything conventionally associated with a public spat to create something wholesome and enjoyable? Or the decision to incorporate branded content in the film’s marketing? Or even how the marketing team chose to make the celebrities seem likeable, but in an unusual way.

We’ve broken down each of these through an understanding of the larger context they’ve been created in. Here are the details of what we’ve spotted.

Ethical blurring of the line between reality and make-believe

Of late, consumers have got better at recognising PR stunts for what they are. They’re more aware and wary of celebrities strategically coming into limelight, shortly before their film’s release — whether it’s by standing for a cause, making a controversial statement or getting into a public spat.

Such PR stunts, which get audiences emotionally involved and later cool off when revealed as fake, tend to attract attention but also create feelings of mistrust and a sense of unreliability. Because they put people in an uncomfortable zone of having to guess what’s true and what isn’t instead of being able to simply put their faith in what they’re told.

AK vs AK’s marketing doesn’t do that. If you choose to look into it, it only takes a few minutes to figure that the spat has been orchestrated. The supposed feud utilises the make-believe only to draw interest and not to consistently deceive its audience over a long period. Its marketers don’t revive interest by gradually releasing updates about vicious comments passed by one side about the other.

Instead, they have created clever and light-hearted content using which the actors can pretend to insult each other in creative ways. And while the spat borrows from real life to retain relevance, both its creators and audience understand that it is being done in good spirit, not to create trouble. This allows people to comfortably enjoy the performance, safe in the knowledge that it isn’t real instead of being fooled into thinking that is and later questioning their understanding of such matters altogether.

Given the choice between making their audience feel excluded through deception or included through fair dealing, it has chosen the latter.

Going beyond making an upfront sell

The most basic technique of film promotion requires celebrities to do interviews and appear on reality shows as a guest/special judge. It involves sharing behind-the-scenes stories that facilitate a richer viewing experience. Like the anecdote about Tom Cruise breaking his ankle while filming but finishing the action sequence nonetheless — something to make viewers hold him in greater regard and eagerly await the film. Marketers will sometimes hold some kind of contest to get audiences excited before the release.

But target audiences aren’t just present in front of TV screens and newspapers. They need to be reached out through social media as well. Which means that film marketing shouldn’t just look at merging celebrity presence with the format of reality shows or work their stories in as news pieces. It also needs to organically merge their promotional presence with the nature and content of social media.

That’s exactly what AK vs AK’s marketing has done by creating branded content. It has revisited Netflix’s popular YouTube series Behensplaining (where two women influencers review films through a feminist lens) with Anil Kapoor and Jackie Shroff in a one-off special called ‘Maushisplaining’, where together they mock Anurag Kashyap’s films. It has collaborated with popular comedians and content creators Tanmay Bhat, Rohan Joshi and Ashish Shakya (previously members of AIB, a company known for its satirical humour and the infamous celebrity roast) to help Anurag Kashyap diss Anil Kapoor.

AK vs AK’s marketing stands out because it has not tried to impose the traditional promotion process of movies onto social media audiences. It has instead reinforced the film’s central concept through fresh branded content that can stand independent of it.

Culturally astute handling of celebrities

As explained in our piece about Spotify’s roast campaign and India’s relation with insult comedy, as a culture we tend to be touchy about being criticised/made fun of in public. Our workaround to this cultural truth is to gossip behind closed doors. This means that when it comes to celebrities, we will pedestalise them but also pass comments about them, their lives and their professional choices in close circles.

AK vs AK’s marketing intelligently responds to this cultural contradiction by creating a roast campaign that presents valid points of critique without offending anyone. By highlighting flaws and airing out honest opinions of the actors, it not only offers relief but also humanises them in the public eye.

And since the spat has been orchestrated in good spirit, it offers a welcome change from the recent state of Bollywood — actors attacking actors as controversy brewed around Sushant Singh Rajput’s demise, in what seems like a dog-eat-dog world. It restores the enjoyment viewers otherwise experience by keeping up with the industry.

Your key takeaway

AK vs AK’s marketing has proven successful because it shows that film promotion can be fresh and creative without falling back on old methods that have been beaten to death. It shows that relying on branded content to promote something as capital intensive as a film is not risky. In fact, it may pay off better in the long run. And that audiences will show appreciation for communication that tries to do something new for their sake (given, of course, that it is executed well).

The campaign was conceptualised and executed by The Rabbit Hole, the video solutions agency of the Zoo Media Network. This included the pre-launch marketing creative strategy, the billboards, Twitter interactions and YouTube content. The Diss Track was created by OML.

(The author, Hamsini Shivakumar is a semiotician, brand strategy consultant and the founder of Leapfrog Strategy Consulting. In her weekly column for BuzzInContent, she and her team analyse interesting content pieces done by brands in terms of their cultural leverage and effectiveness of brand integration. According to her, the content has a symbiotic relationship to popular culture; it helps to form culture and draws from it. It works as part of a simultaneous and virtuous cycle of mutual reinforcement.)

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