Last week, a few residents of Johannesburg were shocked to receive flyers at intersections, advertising a certain Dr Uba, who would pay cash for human organs, upon the assurance of a speedy recovery. On a slightly incongruous note, he sold “rhino parts” to boot.
The advertisement included a telephone number, an email address, and a website, which at first glance appeared to lend authenticity to the flyer. The website (which has since been taken down) contained a convincing amount of detail to reassure prospective patients.
Cue outrage. The story made it onto radio talk shows and hit the newspapers. It quickly went viral on social networks.
Jacques Rousseau, a fellow columnist at The Daily Maverick, was not alone when he called for a police sting operation to bust what appeared to be an exploitative illegal operation. However, Michael Meadon, a regular reader (and frequent critic) of these columns, did some sleuthing and soon discovered that the campaign was a spoof, designed to garner advance publicity for a South African horror film called Night Drive, involving rhino poachers turned muti murderers.
Responded an indignant John Robbie, who hosts a talk show on Radio 702: “They should be fined for being stupid.”
The outrage of many critics may have been perfectly reasonable while the pamphlet and website appeared to be genuine solicitation of organs for cash. The law permits organ donation, and society holds organ donors up as selfless heroes, but neither the law nor many members of society agree that a free person’s autonomy over their own body extends to selling their organs, in the same way as they can donate them, or rent themselves out for manual labour, clerical drudgery or even sex. Besides, the advert would raise the spectres of botched operations, abductions and murder, which are surely valid reasons for concern.
However, even if the initial reaction is justified, why remain outraged after discovering that there isn’t really a Dr Uba harvesting organs, and the whole thing was a spoof to market a horror film?
I asked several people who expressed their disapproval to point out actual harm that could occur as a result of the marketing stunt. I wanted to establish whether the free speech in which the marketers engaged violated John Stuart Mill’s canonical “harm principle”.
In his book, On Liberty, Mill famously wrote: “...there ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing ... any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered.”
He goes further, to deny a democratic right to silence others: “If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”
Having established the principle of free speech, he formulates the test known as the harm principle: “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”
Did such harm occur? “The only parties who seemed genuinely offended by the ad were the media themselves, and a DA politician,” wrote journalist and author Gus Silber.
The politician in question, Jack Bloom, was quoted as saying: “This is extremely poor taste and trivialises a serious and under-reported problem.”
Oh, like films about murder – some of which treat it as mere entertainment or even a joke – trivialise murder? Should we be outraged about the glorification of thieves or vigilantes, such as appears in Robin Hood, The Boondock Saints, Dirty Harry, Ms 45 and many more films?
Bloom did not establish that the campaign did or could harm anyone. Likewise, I was unable to find anyone who remained upset by the stunt, and who could also make the case that real or likely harm would ensue.
Rousseau, who is well versed in the philosophic arts of logic, rhetoric, sophistry and disputation, theorises that the continued outrage even after the pamphlet was shown to be a fake may be attributable to escalation of commitment bias: in for a penny, in for a pound. Admitting to being duped might be more embarrassing than escalating the outrage because some despicable ponytail had the outrageous gall to dupe you.
What really is in bad taste is when a company takes credit for the successes of its subsidiaries or subcontractors, but makes scapegoats of them when things go wrong. In this case, the response from the suits at Ogilvy was very harsh indeed on a small outfit that, ironically, achieved a spectacular marketing coup. Without spending more than a few thousand rand, they made the upcoming film infamous. The campaign hit the newspapers, viral internet marketing and radio talk show targets dead-centre.
But, said Rich Hlatswayo, a spokesperson for 1984’s corporate masters: “The intention was never to mislead the public or media.”
Oh, bullshit. It wouldn’t have worked if nobody thought it was legit. Radio hosts who fell for it and fanned the flames of outrage played right into the hands of the campaign organisers. Feigning contrition now is not only spineless, but supremely cynical. They wanted and expected the outrage.
Those who, for whatever indefensible reason, really are offended by the campaign, might want to watch this comic rant by Steve Hughes (thanks to Andrew Fraser for pointing it out to me). When did our society become so infantilised that we’ve forgotten that “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me”?
The folks at 1984 who dreamt up this brilliant exercise in guerilla marketing deserve a bonus and a raise, not misplaced and dishonest opprobrium from Big Brother. DM
PS. It is, of course, possible that Ogilvy's apology is a dishonest part of the marketing plan. In that case, however, it shouldn't expect consumers (or the media) to ever trust its statements again. I wrote about this trend for ITWeb ten days ago.
- Who needs the Queen’s English?
- Electric cars: Taking from the poor to give to the rich
- Business Licensing Bill: An indefensible defence
- Red-tape tourism
- The Big Business Bribery Bill
- On Thatcher and society, Vavi and the market
- Extinction: Let’s make up numbers and panic!
- Feeding the world is getting easier
- Stop talking shit: Build your own toilet
- Climate change is pseudo-science
- Anti-competitive competition law
- The Department of Less Government
- An open letter to President Zuma
- In defence of Kim Kardashian
- The world’s weirdest wildlife sanctuary
- Boycott calls are simple-minded
- In defence of vegans
- The population explosion implodes
- Environmental backpedalling picks up pace
- How Mangaung can help and hinder entrepreneurs
- The elusive libertarian enclave
- The Gathering: Ivo Vegter
- The hidden overemployment crisis
- The case for constructive environmentalism
- Privatise the Western Cape's shacks
- Tenders: Not open to employees or their families
- Hurricanes fuel climate sensationalism
- Next: Gross-out warnings on food
- No new deal: The failure of Zumanomics
- Benoni has a bright idea
- Was I wrong about acid rain?
- Public food gardens: Where dumb ideas thrive
- Rethinking the costly food label madness
- Give hunting a chance
- Fracking gets green light, but here's the risk
- Socialists, bless 'em, visit Cape Town
- Buy a 1Time ticket now
- Give the ANC credit where credit is due
- The myth of the competent apartheid government
- It's a disaster that 'peak oil' is not a disaster
- No Gravy: a label for sustainable business
- This lightbulb's going to blow
- Smokers? Get 'em up against the wall!
- Inflating the obesity scare
- Bring a Shotgun to School Day
- GMOs: Hacking genes to feed the world
- The hidden dangers of charity
- Fracking: the unread paper debated
- Fracking: The “U-turn” paper nobody has read
- Eco-cronyism is as dangerous as any other
- SKA: Be grateful Karoo residents didn't object
- Energy: Get cracking on fracking
- Fair trade, unfair trade-off
- Casual labour is only bad for Vavi's unions
- 'Externalities', the catch-all justification for regulation
- 'Externalities', the catch-all justification for regulation
- How do we fix our dismal education?
- Barter: the rebirth of sound money
- Rights are not entitlements
- Debunking 'limits to growth' inanities
- Tax: Why align with "most other countries"?
- Newspaper sensationalism doesn't help rhinos
- Rolling Stone reprises Gasland's fracking fantasies
- Cosatu's manipulative march move
- Why do 16 million people not constitute an economy?
- The age of smear politics
- Does fracking cause earthquakes?
- The Chinese model is morbidly obese
- Green tech: doubling down on a losing bet
- Rape, pornography, and hell's grannies
- Petrol taxes won't hurt the poor
- Jailtime mooted for bad weather warnings
- Let's ban bans, and start with CITES
- In defence of overpaid sport stars
- On the death of Kim Jong-Il
- COP17: Let's ban fire
- Cancer gets you when nothing else can
- COP17: The 'party on' agenda
- COP17: The Blue Line of Death
- New seven natural inanities
- Occupiers' anger is all that makes sense
- The Luddites and Technocrats live on
- Malema marches for economic slavery
- Profitable purveyors of pudendal prettiness
- Sense? Us?
- If they want rhino horn, let's sell them some
- "Stimulate" economy by ending telco abuses
- Executive pay makes nobody poorer
- Malema's real persecution
- Mogoeng: Lock up your daughters
- Don't mandate insurance, deregulate healthcare
- I sympathise with Malema's persecution complex
- Short selling: panicked pols ban proof of failure
- Don't blame those who saw it coming
- What's obscene about profit?
- In defence of Bombela
- Dear president Zuma, you are not above the law
- The economics of love
- Treasure the Karoo? Ban the SKA!
- Malema is right, you know
- Gautrain's PPP: political patronage profiteering
- Kumi Naidoo is no hero
- LeadSA fails to lead when it matters
- No logo means carte blanche
- The drug war: dopey but dangerous
- A response to fracking critics
- Don't vote. It's your right.
- Welcome Walmart
- If you're happy and you know it clap your hands
- Buy local, support poverty
- Ubuntu, the free-market way
- Karoo fracking scandal exposed!
- I'm ashamed for my profession
- The bill of bunkum
- Being gay: a brand new concept!
- Who's afraid of the nuclear wolf?
- The nationalisation canard
- Ogilvy should grow a spine
- The new robber barons
- A classy revolution: Why we cared
- Bombastic Bombela balks
- Liberty is more than mere democracy
- Gautrain has a law unto itself
- The irony of 'services for all'
- How to hire a hitman in SA
- Arrive alive and neurotic
- The oppression of taxis
- Protection of Information Bill and why WikiLeaks is so dangerous
- Fifa, Russia and Qatar deserve each other
- One day, we'll all hate WikiLeaks
- The cycling mafia strikes again
- What Julius got for Christmas
- Let's return the beads
- Away with fascist seat belt laws
- Tintin Mbeki in the Sudan
- How the ANC can make everyone happy
- Currency: the race to the bottom.
- Hurrah for national healthcare!
- Give Zimbabweans citizenship
- Carte Blanche has no carte blanche
- That finger-licking, lip-smacking taste
- Bomb the barbaric lot already
- Green tax: another raid is coming
- Do strikers deserve anything?
- The media will lose this battle
- Global warmism needs a fisking
- A glass half-full
- Go ahead, have a baby
- Stop the handouts - end xenophobia
- The right to fire
- FIFA's heart of darkness
- Have some self-respect
- I ordered an orange skirt
- Secretly, Match blames South Africa
- The stupendous Gautrain: a rare marvel!
- The Fifa conquistadors are coming!
- What's wrong with everyone?
- Leave poor BP alone
- The destructive power of government
- The bonsai economy
- The darkness of Africa
- Who is ripping off whom?
- Anatomy of a whitewash
- While FIFA takes over, we fight
- The pointless pretence of Earth Hour
- Ten reasons to reject climate alarmism
- Really, boycott the FIFA farce
- The climate dominoes fall
- Lessons in ethics from Dick Cheney
- Screw the consumer
- In defence of bankers
- Break the banking cartel
- Julius Malema, the walking contradiction
- Boycott FIFA
- Climate clarity
- In defence of Boney M
- Pray Copenhagen fails
- Capitalism is not unkind
- Climate fraud kills people
- Pop goes the hot air balloon
- Peace, love and schadenfreude
- The irony of the left
- Too late to cool it?
- Going cold turkey