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22 September 2014 14:03 (South Africa)
Opinionista Ivo Vegter

Ogilvy should grow a spine

  • Ivo Vegter
If you’re going to be in advertising, have the guts to stand up for your actions. Don’t make scapegoats out of the unfortunate employees of a subsidiary at the first hint a public outcry. Especially when the outcry is not even justified.

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.

In response to the public outcry, Ogilvy quickly turned on 1984, the subsidiary responsible for the campaign. It apologised unreservedly, and gravely promised disciplinary action.

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.

  • Ivo Vegter
IvoVegterBW

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He approaches issues from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He grew up in the deep south of Johannesburg, and learnt his politics reading the Weekly Mail and Vrye Weekblad at Wits University during the early years of the country's transition to democracy. He recently left the city for the lower cost of living of Knysna, where he continues to write about everything under the sun. He is always right.

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