FNB’s basic comms misstep

If any single corporate brand exemplifies the best of South Africa, FNB must come close. The world’s most innovative bank – a title awarded in October last year – it also boasts the country’s coolest CEO, a genuinely nice guy who hangs out on Twitter with the rest of us.  Even if you hate the radio ads with Steve, you have to acknowledge that in its ability to innovate and its achievement of excellence, FNB demonstrates what South Africa is capable of, and should be striving for.

So why has FNB of all brands managed to get into such a mess with an ad campaign that was meant to inspire South Africans to help make a difference  – and has, with spectacular effectiveness, inspired them to moan about the government instead? As they have discovered, the road to advertising hell is paved with good intentions. The ruling party’s reaction to a couple of videos in the You Can Help campaign was typically histrionic, even – as some critics charged – proto-fascist – but that’s true of their response to any form of perceived criticism from business. Communication strategies take risks like this into consideration, and work around them. And yet nobody – not the bank, or its agencies – apparently foresaw the possibility that a few videos of awkwardly earnest school kids reciting speeches about the death penalty and corruption might, when placed in the context of a slick corporate website, take on a nuance that shifts them into a different space from what was intended. In a trends presentation, those videos would have been eye-opening. As part of an ad campaign, they were political dynamite.

This is surprising because FNB has been there, done that and got the flak jacket.  Back in early February 2007, a R20 million campaign aimed at persuading President Thabo Mbeki to make crime his number one priority was due to launch in this newspaper, and got pulled two days before in a storm of bad publicity rivaled only by this one.

Psychologically, South Africa (or at least the collective national self broadly agreed upon by the media, politicians and the middle class) was in a different space back then, when Jacob Zuma was still out in the wilderness, nobody had heard of Julius Malema, and we still had the World Cup to look forward to. The main sources of dissatisfaction in the days before Twitter were crime, HIV/Aids and Zimbabwe. Today, the centre of gravity has shifted to education, which has become a focal point for frustration with a range of other non-delivery issues; nothing symbolizes our apparent determination to mire ourselves in endemic mediocrity quite like that 30% pass mark. If FNB made such a small but dramatic misstep, it’s perhaps because nobody imagined that the laudable notion of giving children a voice could be remotely offensive. Talking about the future of South Africa through the voices of its children should have been a safe bet. As it turned out, it wasn’t.

Some context is useful, because there’s a history in South Africa of brands taking it upon themselves to inspire the nation. After FW de Klerk named the “new South Africa” into being, many ad campaigns drew on the prevailing national narrative, condensed it into 30-second slices of entertainment, and fed it back to the public. The dominant national myth at the time provided fertile ground for advertising ideas: first the rainbow nation, then Thabo Mbeki’s African renaissance, which failed to resonate with most South Africans. During the 2000s, the idea of Brand South Africa emerged, generating many campaigns celebrating the national self and reminding us of our achievements.

But since the final whistle of the World Cup, we’ve been in limbo. There’s no overarching narrative to help us make sense of the vicissitudes of daily life, no idea of what’s next. We have no star to steer by, and it shows. “At no point since 1994 has the Institute confronted more angst and pessimism about the future of the country than we saw in 2012,” the SAIRR noted recently. There is a vacuum post Mangaung, and if government and the media can’t fill it, the big brands will try.

So I read the FNB campaign as an attempt, in part, to do exactly this, and set some kind of national agenda. “It is in times like these,” declared the press release that accompanied the live broadcast, “that we need to be reminded of the greatness inside all of us, and what is possible when help is joined to common purpose and courage to necessity.” A noble sentiment, and very apt. The idea that sparked the debacle is a good one; it’s a tremendous pity that in practice, the campaign fails to deliver, and presented the ANCYL, an organization not known for restraint, with a convenient excuse to cry “treason!” It tells the public “You can help” but, beyond tweeting, sharing a story or clicking through to an NGO’s website, never spells out how – a missed opportunity, because it is in doing stuff out in the real world, not the digital one, that we will make a difference.

The disproportionate reaction was surely an unintended consequence, but even if it was, a corporate ad campaign is not the best vehicle for dissent. Does anybody actually feel inspired – or have we merely been reminded (again) of what depresses us about South Africa in the first place? I fear that in focusing so much on lack of delivery by the government, we are thinking ourselves into a hole from which we will never escape.

What, then, should advertising’s role be in all of this? I believe that now, more than ever, we really do need a national pep talk, and some kind of direction. If campaigns are going to inspire us, they should focus on what is possible, not on what is wrong. On finding those pockets of excellence, from Silicon Cape to Home Affairs (yes, really), and nurturing them. On creative solutions to our many problems. On summoning up the energy to do things, and do them differently. There are a lot of good things happening out there – they’re just not adding up to a narrative that can rival the government is useless, we’re doomed story that is starting to take hold, and which the You Can Help campaign has inadvertently perpetuated.

(An edited version of this piece first appeared in the Sunday Times, 26 January 2013)

– By Sarah Britten