It’s normally Nando’s that causes alarm and consternation when it comes to controversial advertisements. But this week, it was First National Bank that led to the ANC and its leagues to huff and puff and threaten to blow the bank the down.
The reason? A series of brand building videos on the bank’s YouTube channel in which children speak of their hopes and fears for South Africa in a campaign called ‘You Can Help’.
The edits were hardly swept from the cutting room floor before the ANC Youth League delivered the first blast of hot air that ultimately culminated in FNB removing the videos of the children. CEO Michael Jordaan told Bruce Whitfield this was to protect the children, rather than the bank kowtowing to pressure from the governing party.
The ads were a “treasonous attack”, trumpeted new ANCYL spokeswoman, Khusela Sangoni-Khawe. “The campaign claims to be a call to action to assist resolve ‘the challenges’ of South Africa as supposedly told through the mouths of young people. The very first fact is that this campaign does no such thing. FNB, in an obviously lame attempt to recreate an Arab Spring of some sort in South Africa, uses children to make unproven claims of a “government rife with corruption,” she said in a statement.
She also accused the bank of encouraging children to “disrespect their elders” for their comments on basic education minister Angie Motshekga over the Limpopo textbook crisis and President Jacob Zuma’s private home, Nkandla, allegedly renovated to the tune of hundreds of millions with taxpayers’ money.
Jordaan responded by saying the League’s comments on treason were “particularly tasteless and we strongly deny that FNB has acted in any manner which gives rise to such malicious allegations”.
But what do advertising people think of the ads? Peering through the clutter of political spinning and the ANC’s hot air, is it a campaign of worth?
Marketing specialist Chris Moerdyk says he finds the marketing “confused because it tends to leave the consumer in a quandary about just how they are supposed to react or get involved. But, that is not to say it is a bad idea – perhaps just a little inefficient,” he says.
Bernice Samuels, the banks chief marketing officer, says the intention of the series of online videos was not for the bank to talk about itself, but to “rather to be a brand for betterment by providing the youth of our country with a stage to voice what impacts the daily reality of many South Africans”.
She told the Mail & Guardian that it was time for us “to listen to the voices we seldom hear, the youth of our country, because it is the South Africa we build today that will be the country they will inherit tomorrow.”
Media planner Gordon Muller says the campaign “looks quite high risk”.
“As a rule of thumb, ‘keep out of politics when you’re advertising’ is a good one and ‘keep out of party politics’ an even better one,” he says. “If you’re a really edgy niche brand, go for it but as we’ve seen, even Nando’s has a limit.
“When I run training session for media owners, I ask them one question… ‘Do you want to be right, or do you want to be rich’? FNB might be right, but given that the vast majority of South Africans actually support the ANC, the potential to piss off your customers is quite high, I would have thought.
“Personally I’m a lot more offended by the Monash University radio ad that offers a bursary to the “first 500 callers”. What’s next? Running 4km for a degree?”
Moerdyk agrees it was a risky strategy for the bank to take. “It seems to me to be more of a PR or brand building campaign by FNB in terms of ‘telling it like it is’, and bringing issues out into the open that previously weren’t made public by the private sector and in that way garnering consumer loyalty.
“It’s risky marketing but I suppose if one has deep enough pockets it could be a risk worth taking. FNB has certainly been getting its marketing right for a while now and its pretty predictable that the envelope will be pushed.”
Marklives editor Herman Manson told TheMediaOnline the media and civil society talks about the “social contract between business and the communities in which they operate. Part of that social contract is surely to engage with those communities on issues relevant to them, be that education, health care, service delivery, the environment, and yes, politics”, he says.
“For the most part business avoids taking a stance around potentially controversial issues – it’s much easier to just support sports teams and buy soccer uniforms for kids in rural schools, or to try and save the rhino.
“A few South African CEOs have made tentative steps in this direction. Usually the governing party, better known for crass invective it uses against even the most mild of critics and its thin skin when it comes to any debate that doesn’t overtly toe its line, than say delivering school books to kids, swiftly shuts them down with labels like ‘treason’, ‘counter-revolutionary’ ,” Manson says.
“This effectively disallows an important voice in debates around issues of national importance. Importantly, it disallows an important voice with the financial muscle to actually be heard, something less and less common in a time where (seemingly often-corrupt) money seems to swing the pendulums of power.”
ANC spokesman Keith Khoza accused FNB of “unfairly using children to articulate a view that we don’t even know for sure is their own”. Moerdyk says the ANC itself has taken a risk by taking this attitude.
“Children have a right to speak out and the ANC needs to be very, very careful of suggesting that young people don’t necessarily understand the challenges of governance and undoing 250 years of oppression and colonialism’. Young people today are extremely savvy about the ways of the world and given the high percentage of youth that make up the total electorate in this country, it is suicidal to publicly marginalise them,” he says.
Especially as this is the born free generation, many of them who will be voting for the first time in 2014…
Clearly that’s something the Young Communist League thought of when it issued its statement. “FNB’s political campaign titled ‘You can help’ is aimed in our view at garnering votes for the ‘Democratic Alliance’. This constitutes an assault at [sic] our African National Congress (ANC) led government and the national democratic revolution, and is typified by the following utterance from one of the videos: ‘Stop voting for the same government in hopes for change – instead change your hopes to a government that has the same hopes as us’,” says Khaya Xaba, YCLSA’s spokesman.
FNB have removed the videos – for now. But there is still one on the site, billed as a “message from SA’s children” that should resonate with South Africans of all ages. Student Kelly Baloyi asks South Africans to overcome “greed, mistrust” as well as “petty politics” and rampant illiteracy.
“From a brand perspective, FNB is increasingly associated with a younger, tech-savvy generation. To have representatives of a younger generation to face their ads makes sense from this perspective. As does acknowledging their role, political and otherwise, in South African society,” says Manson.
Moerdyk believes this kind of advertising does have a role to play in South Africa. It certainly does not “declare war on government”, as the ANC somewhat hysterically claims.
“The ANC is taking this far too seriously,” Moerdyk says. “As it has shown in its reaction to political cartoonists, for example, the ANC seems to be unable to prevent itself from knee-jerk responses which it clearly regrets later. I think this kind of advertising has a role to play in South Africa but purely from a corporate social investment point of view.”