The culture of crime or rather, the habit many South Africans have got into of simply living with crime, is presenting the media and marketers with all sorts of opportunities.
With the line between right and wrong having become inordinately fuzzy these past few decades, many South Africans are in effect, now committing crimes without realising for a moment that they’re actually transgressing the law.
For example, boards of directors now seem quite happy not to prosecute their senior executives who are caught with their fingers in the till, taking backhanders from suppliers or otherwise ripping off the company. It is almost standard corporate practice today for the two parties to come to an arrangement whereby the perpetrator simply resigns often with a sizeable golden handshake after signing a deal never to talk about what he has done, while the company agrees to forget about it.
The rather misguided thinking behind this being that the management of any company seen to have been ripped off by one of its own would not look good and that the resultant PR from any exposé would be damaging to the brand and more importantly, the share price.
Then we have an increasing culture of corruption in corporate circles with the use of backhanders to get business seemingly becoming more and more acceptable.
At the lower end of the scale, upright law abiding citizens think nothing these days of overtaking on solid white lines, chatting on cellphones while driving, screwing the taxman, inflating expense accounts and all sorts of other things they don’t consider for a moment are wrong but which, in fact, are all crimes.
It has got so bad that taxi drivers go on strike and organise protest marches when police quite legitimately stop them for committing blatant crimes in terms of road rules and the roadworthiness of their vehicles.
Now, there are two distinct and very different ways in which marketers take advantage of this national mindset.
One is to leverage this rather cavalier attitude the consumer has in terms of embarking on campaigns that are blatantly misleading but which nevertheless become acceptable because the consumer simply accepts that in this modern day and age no one is honest anymore and no one can be trusted. With the result that they almost expect to have to deal with snake oil salesmen.
The other option is to assume that what is actually going on in the mind of the consumer is that while it is quite alright for an individual to talk on a cellphone while driving, overtake on white lines, dodge the taxman and indulge in all sorts of other petty criminal activity, there is a deep seated anger and resentment at the amount of crime going on in the country. Which sounds contradictory but it isn’t. It’s human nature.
Now, this means that the majority of consumers are actually desperate for someone to trust and that any company that can demonstrably market itself as a trustworthy company, will have customers flocking to its doors. Ironically, those companies that push the envelope of morality to its limits are also largely successful because they appeal to ego and greed.
What is fascinating however is that many of these companies don’t seem to realise that they’re sailing close to the ethical wind.
Take, as a classic example, a South African Airways Voyager e-mail that was sent to members a few years ago.
They were asked to vote for Voyager in the international Freddies Awards that recognise outstanding frequent travel programmes worldwide. Winners were chosen after voting by their members.
All would have been fine and above board if SAA had simply asked its Voyager members to vote if indeed they thought Voyager was a good programme.
But, with what was either arrogance or mind-boggling naivety, Voyager offered 500 Voyager Bonus Miles to all members who took the trouble to vote.
Now, this might not necessarily be a criminal offence as such but it certainly went well beyond enticement and sailed very close to the wind, in my opinion, of bribery and corruption.
Because, thousands of members who would normally not bother to vote and even many of those who thought Voyager was the worst programme in the world, put in their vote simply to earn those extra air miles. Again, it’s preying on inherent consumer greed.
Interestingly enough, the people I spoke to who ran SAA’s Voyager programme at the time had great difficulty accepting that they were doing anything wrong.
They insisted that the US organisers of the awards actually encouraged airlines to use incentives such as free miles to ensure that the votes rolled in.
Was this marketing gone mad or perfectly acceptable in this day and age?
And what about professional wrestling on TV? One of the most watched ‘sports’ programmes by far. But, do viewers and spectators give a hoot that it is also preplanned, choreographed and a complete and utter fake?
The problem is though, that the marketing environment is extremely skewed. While legislation on foodstuff packaging insists on rigorous disclosure, there is no law on other forms of marketing that require no disclosure at all.
On one hand the consumer is protected with a steel ring fence while on the other it seems perfectly acceptable for the consumer to be misled.
It is small wonder that branded television and product placement is becoming so popular in allowing brands to become part of the programme. And while this is supposed by its very nature to be subtle in order to work properly, it does offer advertisers the opportunity to be able to make claims about their products they never could do in classical advertising.
It is bizarre to say the least, that nowadays when one reads a newspaper or watches TV or listens to the radio, that the advertising content is by far the most believable. Quite simply because advertising is so rigorously regulated these days while editorial content is quite rightly not.
Certainly, the way ahead is going to be both fascinating and challenging for South Africa’s media and marketers. The opportunity to play fast and loose with the truth will be abundant but it will by no means be easy. Some will get away with murder while others will be dismayed to be rejected by consumers for something that looks far less dodgy.
I can certainly see a lot of frustration in South Africa in future as marketers try desperately to grapple with a consumer mindset that on one hand is screaming blue murder about the level of crime in South Africa and on the other is feeling very little about breaking all sorts of laws as they go about their daily lives.
But, I believe that astute marketers and media owners will forego the short term benefits in leveraging the fact that so many consumers have simply opted to live with crime and accept that the people who flog them things are shady and slick.
Instead they will base their strategies on the fact that the fundamentals of marketing have not changed in hundreds of years and that the best and safest way forward is simply to strive to offer the best quality and service.
Whether this be a brand, service, product, newspaper, radio station, website, magazine or TV network.
Brand loyalty, after all, has proved time and time again that it beats the hell out of brand acceptance. The former is generally for life and the latter here today and gone tomorrow.