Opinionista Justin McCarthy 24 January 2013

South Africa, how can we help you?

In the marketing world it’s a rare and desirable thing to have everyman discussing your brand. The “new” South Africa hasn’t witnessed a major brand delving into risqué territory before, at least until last Thursday, when FNB launched a new campaign. In doing so they dropped a match in dry veld buffeted by strong winds, predictably being blown by our political masters. Everyman made popcorn and congregated to watch the show, throw pips and hurl invective. Is this really important to our social discourse, and if so, why?

Some practitioners believe that all PR is good PR, regardless of its slant. Contention is a platform for brands trading on calculated risk, and disdain for societal norms is the wrapping adopted by others as their running mate. Think Nando’s and Benetton respectively. I’ve always found it intriguing that in a country as fractured and fractious as ours, with a rich history of artistic, journalistic and sectoral societal contempt for the status quo, so few brands have leveraged this to their advantage. The old adage that brands should avoid controversy is outdated and outmoded. It’s twentieth century thinking propagated by old school minds unable or unwilling to colour outside the lines. In a country like South Africa, if you don’t take a position, you simply get ignored.

Then along came the FNB campaign. The bank did a good job of alerting the public to its launch with a teaser drumming up interest before breaking the campaign in a simulated multi-channel broadcast. A low-level buzz thrummed around the marketing community over the next few days without much ado. Then the ANC and its Youth and Women’s Leagues threw a tanker of fuel at the smouldering grass and suddenly the matter was propelled to levels of hysteria far surpassing the previous week’s Armstrong-Winfrey troupe.

Cynics are quick to observe that FNB deliberately goaded the alarmingly thin-skinned ANC in a ploy to ramp the campaign up to unprecedented attention levels. I think they’re foolish. Apologists observe that the bank is merely reflecting what the country’s youth are thinking. I think that’s naïve. Some marketing commentators (such as Chris Moerdyk in his industry column) believe the bank’s made a giant marketing 101 error by encroaching on the prohibited territory of politics. I think that’s nonsense. Some are supportive of the bank’s right to freedom of speech and are buoyed by big capital speaking truth to power. I think they’re on the right track. Most appear to be scratching their heads and wondering just what point FNB is trying to make.

Nobody’s sure, I suspect not even FNB themselves. They appear to have cornered themselves between an indistinct marketing message about help and hope and a social discourse on the woes of ordinary South Africans, channelled through youthful voices. In so doing, they left the door wide open to interpretation, a temptation that was just too much for the ANC to resist. National spokesperson Jackson Mthembu called the ads an “undisguised political statement that makes random and untested accusations against our government in the name of discourse”. He’s partly right, although I disagree with them being undisguised and levelled at government. Mr Mthembu then proceeds to torpedo any legitimacy in his statement by stating “such advertisements will breed resentment of government and its programmes of development”, thereby anointing a bank’s ad campaign with sufficient credit to impair the image of government. As if their performance couldn’t possibly be responsible.  Only an organisation drowning in diffidence would publicly admit to such a deep-seated irrational fear.

The almost-forgotten ANC Youth League called the ads a treasonous and treacherous attack on the country, and laughably accuses the bank of attempting to create an Arab Spring of sorts. The Young Communist League demonstrated a complete ignorance of irony by demanding “[i]f the bank does not accede to our demand we will call on all democracy-loving South Africans to boycott it”. The ANC is gathering quite a predictable reputation for being intolerant, thin-skinned and emotionally immature. The Spear fiasco, the Limpopo textbook shame, Julius Malema and the “counter-revolutionaries” of Mangaung all provoked embarrassingly puerile reactions more befitting of a primary schoolboy tiff than a country’s ruling majority. If they had chosen to ignore the FNB ads you wouldn’t be reading this and the dozen or so other pieces you’ve already digested on the subject.

Buried beneath all of this noise lies an important point we should concern ourselves with. It was perhaps the conscious or unconscious intent, partial or complete, of FNB’s campaign. Perhaps I give them too much credit or too little, but either way their campaign and the ANC’s churlish reaction to it has struck a protruding chord, one left mostly to the “counter-revolutionary” media, the odd civic organisation and the all-too occasional tall poppy such as Desmond Tutu, Ruel Khoza, Jonathan Jansen and Terry Crawford-Browne. That chord is one where big business exercises its constitutionally enshrined voice, its freedom not only of commercial speech but also of expression. Ignoring for the minute moral grounds, it serves no rational purpose, any more than it did under Apartheid, for business to remain silent in the public eye. Ingratiating oneself to a kleptocracy is one thing, but attempting to fence sit while Rustenberg, De Doorns and Zamdela burns is disingenuous and dangerous, as it’s tantamount to a passive contribution to an increasingly restricted economy reliant on a diminishing tax base in a dramatically polarised society propped up by a ballooning and unsustainable social welfare system.

If business is to ensure a meaningful future for itself, then it needs to take its contribution to society more seriously, not only through CSI programmes but also through pressuring government by a variety of means at its disposal, including being publically vocal and critical about government. President Zuma recently told a gathering at the closing of the party’s 100 year celebrations that businesses which support the ANC will prosper. That’s a mere half step from a public admission to a policy of patronage and is detestable, but how many business heads came out with a viewpoint on it? Whether it’s a statement like that made by Ruel Khoza in Nedbank’s annual report or an ad campaign reminding South Africans that everyman has a voice and a choice, business, like everyone in the country, needs to step up. The difference between a small civic organisation or a tall poppy and a major commercial player is that the latter has considerably more leverage.

The opportunity to contribute to and influence the future economy is unquestionably of self-interest to capital, and while the government flounders in so many areas it’s both irresponsible and reprehensible that big players in the economy keep their heads below the parapet. Get involved, take some risks, and show some commitment to the values you espouse. The country needs constructive dissent and strident voices of reason. Government and the ANC needs you, even though they’d be hard-pressed to admit it. With Trevor Manuel unwinding his long-term position in government, a new era of opportunity arises to fill those shoes, and entrusting that to this government is a risk too big for any business that claims to be committed to South Africa. DM


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