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When your advert is irresponsible

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Many advertisers and their advertising agencies often miss the social responsibility embedded in their jobs. As a rookie reporter with The Guardian in 1990, I took an interest in advertising messages and my opinion was that most of the adverts I saw were below par in terms of how effectively they communicated brand benefits. When I had an opportunity to speak with one of the leading lights in Nigerian advertising at the time, Julia Oku of S O & U (later S O & U Saatchi & Saatchi), I told her I could write better ads than most of what advertising agencies were daily churning out. She promptly gave me the challenge to ‘come and prove it’. That was how I switched from my journalism job to advertising in October 1990. Of course, Julia was easily one of the best advertising copywriters at the time, having honed her skill at Insight Communications before teaming up with Udeme Ufot and Gbemi Sagay to establish S O & U.

I concede many of the clients didn’t do enough work on creating a unique benefit for their brands. Such clients would tell you to find something unique to say about their brands since ‘you people are the experts’. The truth is simply that your advertising may not make sense if there is no unique benefit about your brand to communicate. While I learnt the basic skill of copywriting, I also learnt that as a copywriter, I was a mass communicator and as such had a responsibility to handle information with care and discipline. In advertising your messages have a social responsibility, especially in a culturally diverse society such as we have. But oftentimes, that responsibility is slaughtered on the altar of attention-grabbing creativity.

I am not surprised to see a campaign for Indomie Noodles saying ‘if it’s not Indomie, don’t call it Indomie’. This became necessary due to one of the challenges that brand success brings. Indomie has become so successful that it has assumed the generic name for all noodle brands. When a market leader, especially one with pioneer status, becomes very dominant, this is one of the possible outcomes. It happened to Coke, when all brands of carbonated soft drinks were simply called Coke. The Indomie campaign is impactful and memorable but fails the social responsibility test. I guess, in trying too hard to hit at the competition, the producers forgot that the vendor is not the competition, but a valuable partner in the supply chain. That man selling noodles by the road side shouldn’t be at the receiving end of your flak. He doesn’t need a cheeky little girl poking her nose at him. It is disrespectful. Respect for those older than us, is an important part of our cultural values. Even though such values are unfortunately being eroded, a leading brand like Indomie shouldn’t contribute to that erosion. The message could be effectively communicated without breaking the unwritten rule of social responsibility.

The first time I saw the Glo ‘Free Tomorrow’ advert on TV, I was shocked. The ad offers up plenty of drama, excellent directing and top notch production quality. The acting is great. But then again, this ad flouts the social responsibility rule. It features a Mai Suya who gets angry with a customer and threatens him with his knife. It is all good natured humour, but the producers are guilty of misrepresentation. Certain things would fit nicely into a Nollywood movie, but not within TV commercials that have no age restriction. It is common in the advertising industry for the creative guys to lay too much emphasis on award winning concepts at the detriment of positive societal values.

Recently, GTBank has been entertaining us with their 737 musical video. The advert entertains more than it communicates but that is not even the problem. GTBank is a brand I hold in very high esteem. When the bank was launched, I was working as a trainee copywriter at S O & U. I therefore had the privilege of being able to count myself as a member of the team that handled the Guaranty Trust Bank launch campaign. It was clearly a bank that came to make a big difference, and it did. While a lot has happened between then and now, and GTBank has made changes in positioning, the brand has remained true to its core values and consistent in its value proposition.

I am therefore surprised to see GTBank flout the social responsibility rule in its 737 commercial, which tries to communicate that the 737 service is for everybody. In so doing, the musical commercial features an Igbo businessman as well as somebody apparently from the North, singing about how 737 is relevant to them. Now we have a challenge that many producers face in trying to effectively communicate with different segments of our multi-cultural and multi ethnic society without being offensive. This is often tricky. However, in trying to navigate this mine field of ethnic sensibilities, we often resort to stereotypes. So you have an Igbo person speaking English with a heavy Igbo accent and a similar approach for someone who supposedly represents the North and West.

I asked my friend and ex colleague Paschal Anyaso, a seasoned copywriter, who until recently was Executive Director at Prima Garnet Africa. Hear him: ‘That Igbo or Hausa or Yoruba with a certain relevant dialect is misleading. It can entertain, but as the years pass, it becomes really wrong. Because many people from those areas, don’t really speak that way. So, increasingly, it becomes patronising, if not downright insulting’. I think it is disrespectful to mimic the accent from certain parts of the country in your advertising. If you want to speak to the Hausa person, speak Hausa, instead of speaking English with a Hausa accent. If you want to connect with the Yoruba person, speak Yoruba rather than speaking English in a way you project them as speaking it. This belongs in the realm of stand-up comedy, and certainly not advertising.

Next is MTN’s ‘Blind Faith’. The idea of ‘blind faith’ implies faith without reason or intelligence. It even implies foolishness to some extent. Whatever MTN might have paid Cobhams Asuquo, a visually impaired music star, to do this ad, it is exploitative and absolutely irresponsible. The message could have been effectively communicated without the ‘blind faith’ metaphor. The line ‘We have blind faith in your future’ simply destroyed it for me. The pun simply doesn’t make sense.

Muyiwa Kayode is CEO at USP Brand Management and author, The Seven Dimensions of Branding. Brand Nation is a platform for promoting national development based on the universal principles of branding.



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