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The MetropolitanRepublic scandal highlights how South Africans generally suspend critical thinking when overwhelmed with PR and marketing hype, writes Brendan Seery.
Johannesburg - As “it’s not my fault” statements go, the one issued by Joburg ad agency MetropolitanRepublic last week ranked up there with Bill Clinton’s “I did not have sex with that woman”.
Caught trying to pull a fast one on The Loeries Awards by entering work which had not been run, the agency said that “due process around entering the awards had not been followed nor cleared with the executive team within MetropolitanRepublic nor our client”.
So, the senior execs were allegedly not aware that the campaign – Project Uganda, done for MTN – was “still in development”. Interesting, given that when the campaign collected the Loeries’ top award, the Grand Prix, all and sundry from the agency celebrated. And, senior staffers later went on to crow about it on radio.
In addition to the Grand Prix award for media innovation, the campaign also received a Gold in the Ubuntu category for sustainable marketing.
In the agency’s Loeries entry, it claimed it had run four-week campaigns in newspapers in Uganda, to help students access study material and help people without bank accounts to transfer money. The agency claimed it had printed pictures of library books in these newspapers and that students could then access the content of those books by using USSD (unstructured supplementary service data) codes on their cellphones.
Pictures of ATM machines, also with codes, were supposedly printed and posted in various places. People without bank accounts could transfer money by punching in codes shown on the posters, according to the agency’s award entry.
A video supporting the Project Uganda entry, and which is still running on a number of websites, was clearly shot in South Africa, not Uganda.
Apparently only after the Loeries board began investigating did the agency decide to withdraw the entry. In its Clinton-esque official statement, MetropolitanRepublic claimed the issue had “been under discussion with management since the awards were won”… clearly things move slowly there, because the awards were won on September 22, almost a month earlier.
The loss of the Grand Prix Loerie, after the withdrawal of the campaign, was not the only pain for MetropolitanRepublic.
Loeries CEO Andrew Human said all other award winners from MetropolitanRepublic would be disqualified.
And: “No representative from MetropolitanRepublic will be allowed to judge at the Loeries for the next two years.”
In addition, Human said: “Any entries submitted by MetropolitanRepublic for the next two years must be accompanied by a media schedule, a letter from the brand representative and the contact details of the brand representative.”
Those are some of the strongest sanctions yet handed down by the Loeries, which clearly had to act decisively and firmly to restore the credibility of the entire South African ad industry.
But the scandal has also highlighted a serious problem with “techno-dazzle”, as laypeople seemingly swallow hi-tech marketing snake oil without asking enough questions.
Alistair Fairweather, the Mail & Guardian’s chief technology officer, correctly pointed out this week that the USSD book download concept was not practical. USSD codes, used in this application, would require 2 000 separate messages back to the user to transmit a full, 65 000-word book, he said. And the pupil wanting to read the book would have to do it as the messages came in because, unlike SMSes, they cannot be stored on the phone.
As Fairweather says, it cannot be expected that Loeries judges are up to speed on all things technological, but South Africans generally suspend critical thinking when overwhelmed with PR and marketing hype.
Classic example: the smoke and mirrors marketing by “have an affair” website AshleyMadison.com.
These Canadians are past masters (mistresses?) at spinning nonsense into newspaper column centimetres. They will hire billboards for short duration, well aware that the content of those billboards will provoke public indignation and (free) news coverage.
They may well also be behind the complaints in the first place. And they put out streams of “research” about sex (like Kuruman was the most highly sexed town in South Africa), knowing full well that journalists don’t ask questions (Where was the research done? What questions were asked? How many people responded?) when it comes to sleaze.
Another problem is claims from cyberspace: Anything that speaks about Facebook likes or YouTube or website hits has to be treated with care… these can be bought in their thousands for comparatively little money.
Even website advertising needs to be examined closely – a well-known local website has admitted that the CTR (click through rate) from ads on its pages is just 1 percent. Which means that one in every 100 people who visits will actually look at an ad.
We in the media are also guilty of giving sources like Twitter far more prominence than they deserve in terms of numbers.
Clever manipulators can push agendas and points of view far out of proportion to the actual numbers of those pushing them.
Apart from the flawed technical concept underpinning the Project Uganda campaign was the cynical way in which corporate responsibility was abused. Until the withdrawal of the Grand Prix, everyone who saw the campaign saluted its cleverness and the fact it had made a tangible difference to the lives of poor African people. Now it just looks like corporate greed.
MTN looks, at this stage, like being the innocent party in all this, although it is quite clear that its reputation, particularly when it comes to corporate responsibility, will have been harmed.
MTN spokesperson Xolisa Vapi said the company “had noted the explanation” offered by MetropolitanRepublic.
Whether that has further ramifications for its relationship with MetropolitanRepublic only time will tell.
MetropolitanRepublic was also in trouble last year after the SABC “banned” a TV advertisement it did for the Fish & Chip Company. The offending ad poked fun at President Jacob Zuma and his family. The ad won a Loerie award this year (and was subsequently disqualified) for campaigns which did not run.
Given what happened with the MTN Uganda campaign, one wonders whether the ad was ever intended to run, or was it a bit of media kite flying… knowing the free coverage from a media storm would far exceed any exposure from a paid-for TV ad?
Earlier this year, the agency generated another storm over its You can Help campaign for FNB, which featured a schoolgirl commemorating the 1976 Soweto uprising by making harsh comments about South Africa’s current situation.
FNB was accused of attacking the ANC and some of the videos were removed from the internet.
What was interesting about the reaction from both MetropolitanRepublic and FNB to the ruckus over the ad was that they seemed taken aback.
Didn’t anyone consider the possible repercussions? Didn’t anyone consider that the ad might offend not only the ANC, but actual and potential customers of the banking group who are ANC supporters?
Or was that just another “failure of process”?
* Brendan Seery is executive editor at the Saturday Star.