FNB has pulled a series of videos from its You Can Help campaign after it was criticised by the ANC as being "political" and "treasonous".
The bank at first gave no official reasons for why it had pulled the videos, and said only that its intentions were misinterpreted.
FNB chief marketing officer Bernice Samuels eventually responded to calls for clarity on why the adverts were pulled.
"Unfortunately we have decided to take them [the videos] down as the participants are fearing reprisals," Samuels told Talk Radio 702 during an interview on Monday.
Samuels added that the participants had to be prevented from being caught in the "political crossfire" that now surrounds the campaign.
"Serious allegations of treason were levelled against them. This was not the point of the campaign. It was aimed at galvanising the nation," she said.
Samuels added the responses recorded were not edited or tampered with in any way.
"This is the reality of these children, they responded honestly and their answers were not scripted," she said.
The videos in question featured young people who spoke critically of the challenges faced by the country.
One of the participants complained of unemployment, poverty and nationwide strikes, and a government rife with corruption, while another urged people to “stop voting for the same government in hopes for change”.
The campaign was launched on January 17. The remaining video from the campaign – which does not articulate such strong views about the government but focuses more on the company’s call for help in building a better society – has already racked up almost 12 000 views.
ANC on the defensive
Reaction from the ANC was swift. On Sunday, party spokesperson Keith Khoza told the Mail & Guardian that the videos were "an attack on the president, his ministers and government as a whole".
This sentiment was echoed on Monday by the ANC’s Jackson Mthembu who added: “What is of concern to the ANC is that the advert content is an undisguised political statement that makes random and untested accusations against our government in the name of discourse.”
Meanwhile the ANC Youth League characterised the campaign as a “treasonous attack on government” and an attempt to destablise the country.
The youth league later slammed the bank for removing the ads, saying: "This cowardly act of removing the videos is nothing but the act of capital caught with its pants down," and called for them to be released again so that they could be viewed and discussed.
But Eusebius McKaiser, an associate at the Wits Centre for Ethics, said that government’s reaction to the campaign was “over the top”.
“Corporate citizens are also citizens. They play an important role in the country and therefore are allowed to speak wearing their corporate hats and their hats as ordinary citizens. It might be imprudent for them but whether it’s imprudent is a different question as to whether it’s acceptable,” he said.
McKaiser said that although there was no tradition in the country of businesses being critical of government, this does not mean businesses are not allowed to express an opinion.
“We have to accept the question of whether it’s legitimate criticism,” he said.
Marketing experts meanwhile said the advert was a risky one, which could stand to alienate its intended audience.
Jonathan Cherry, editor of marketing trends website Cherryflava.com said the incident illustrated that it was wise for brands to steer clear of religion and politics.
“I have a real problem with brands getting involved in such debates while at the same time trying to push their own services,” he said, pointing out that the website for the campaign included FNB adverts touting the benefits of switching to FNB.
Social media consultant Mel Attree agreed that the campaign also blurred the lines between a call to arms to help build a better country and a sales pitch for FNB services.
“Mobilising the youth is a smart thing to do but they're also protecting future customers,” she said.
She also expressed surprise that the videos had been pulled so soon after they’d been released.
"I'm surprised as to why stuff has been pulled off so quickly because they should have anticipated the backlash. It’s a well-known fact that if you're going to do something that is going to annoy a certain sector of government or the nation, that you have a plan B or a plan C,” she said.
Marketing analyst Chris Moerdyk – who also characterised the campaign as “confusing” – agreed that FNB should have anticipated the ANC’s response.
“With very basic research … the one thing you would know is that the ANC is not only paranoid but they are prone to knee-jerk reactions. They just get terribly upset,” he said.
Last year, members of the ANC lashed out at Nedbank's chairperson Reuel Khoza, who complained in the company’s annual report that the country’s “political leadership’s moral quotient is degenerating”.
Moerdyk said that even if the campaign was not meant by FNB to be a political statement, the ANC’s reaction had made it one.
“The first thing the ANC did was complain bitterly about it … The mere fact that the ANC has reacted so vociferously against it has made it political,” he said.
An ad agency involved in the campaign, Metropolitan Republic, recently came under fire for another of its campaigns, an animated advert for the Fish & Chip Company that skewered President Jacob Zuma and his polygamous lifestyle.
The ad caused a stir and was pulled from the South African Broadcasting Corporation's channels at the last moment. But the ban helped propel the ad to viral fame, and it went on to amass well over 100 000 views on YouTube and news websites.