The ANC and FNB’s ads: Storm in a teacup

"FNB made a political statement so we shouldn't be surprised that the ANC responded in kind. Frankly I'm surprised that people are surprised," said political analyst Ebrahim Fakier on Monday.

Fakier was commenting on the uproar over the incident in which videos that formed part of FNB's "You Can Help" campaign were removed following criticism from the ANC.

In the videos one of the teens says: "Stop voting for the same government in hopes for change – instead, change your hopes to a government that has the same hopes as us," while another says: "South African people need to wake up – 1994 is gone! It is gone!"

FNB's chief marketing officer Bernice Samuels said it was not the bank's intention to attack the government or the ANC but to "call on every South African, in a practical and meaningful way, to play their part in helping to create a better South Africa".

The bank later met with the party to discuss the incident and apologised for the campaign and there was a subsequent backlash over its decision to back down from it's original position.

Problematic response
But Fakier said it was FNB's response that was problematic.

"What FNB did, which is new, is that they engaged in a severe act of contrition. If you want to make a political statement, stand your ground. That they relented, for me, is the problem," he said.

Fakier pointed out that while the party was vocal in its criticism, there was no criticism from government.

"If a government acts adversely towards [criticism] I think we should all worry. But if a party responds vigorously, it's their right," he said.

The ANC's reaction to the FNB adverts was not out of character for a political party, he added.

At the same time, Fakir expressed concern about what appears to be a growing intolerance from government.

ANC fury
In recent years the ANC developed a reputation for coming down harshly on those who criticised it – last year the party organised a march on the Goodman Gallery which had on display a painting of President Jacob Zuma with his genitals exposed. It also criticised Nedbank's chairperson Reuel Khoza, who made critical comments on the country's leadership in the bank's annual report.

"If you look at everything from the Protection of State Information Bill and the Traditional Courts Bill right down to the DA's march to Cosatu, the day the DA wanted to go to Nkandla, the day the DA went to [Swayimane] where there have been quite a few rapes and they were intimidated by the local counsellors, when you put all these tings together, it looks like there's this creeping sense of intolerance from the ANC," he said.

Steven Friedman, director of the Centre for the Study for Democracy, agreed that the ANC was entitled to criticise the adverts.

"They got angry, they're entitled to get angry," he said, adding that it would not be acceptable in any country for a company to run an advert, under their logo, urging people you to vote against a particular party.

"There's an obvious reason for this," he said. "You're going to upset the governing party and their supporters and that's what FNB did.

Friedman said that what was lost in the conversation on the matter was the fact that the ANC did not, at any stage, threaten that FNB would lose its banking license or other business opportunities.

"I'm not arguing that FNB has no right to do this. If FNB wants to do this, they can do it. All I'm saying is do not be surprised if people react negatively."

Friedman said the reason why companies like Nando's, which is known for its tongue-in-cheek social commentary – did not have similar responses was because its adverts were more subtle and humorous.

But Nando's itself did have some of its adverts canned due to criticism. TV spots dealing with famous dictators and xenophobia had their runs cut short.

Also, he said, "Nando's have never run an ad saying 'stop voting for the ANC, start voting for another party'. That's what the FNB advert said."

Friedman said that the ANC's reaction was "entirely predicable" and not indicative of bullying.

"We shouldn't worry," he said. "We should start to worry if they start threatening that something nasty will happen to you, that you won't get business or get a license. That's bullying."

Instead, he criticised the mainstream debate on the matter, saying national debate became less about a diversity of voices and more about ranting against government.

'Chilling effect'
"We really have reached a stage now where for most commentators, it's free speech to attack the ANC and bullying for the ANC to reply," he said.

Meanwhile, Spiwe Chireka, communications analyst at the International Data Corporation, said that while the bank was not censored as such, the incident might have a chilling effect on what types of campaigns advertising companies were willing to run.

"I wouldn't go as far as to say [FNB] was censored," said Chireka.

"The advert went out. It's already achieved its desired effect. People saw it, there was a discussion. Although it was no longer about the content of the ads, it achieved its desired effect. But other advertising houses will think very carefully about how they go about criticising government."

Independent communications strategist Sarah Britten agreed that the incident could discourage companies from pushing the envelope.

"It's very difficult to create a campaign about what is wrong with society. Now it's going to be even more difficult because every time a corporate stands up and talks about education or social issues, its going to be read in a particular way," she said.

​Britten said it was important to have a forum for debate on social issues but that she was unsure whether this could be achieved through an ad campaign.

"Advertising has its limits," she said.

Marketing analyst Chris Moerdyk described the campaign as a whole as "ill-advised" and took a cynical view of the bank's motivation for running with a risky campaign that broke a cardinal rule of advertising: stay well away from politics.

Moerdyk said he believed the decision to run with the campaign was rooted in the increasing difficulty advertisers faced in getting consumers' attention.

"It's become more and more difficult. The consumer's attention is being distracted by television, sport, radio and particularly by the online environment and social media," he said.

"This particularly applies to advertising. On television we've now got 50-something channels, we've got PVRs that allow us to skip advertising, and on radio and television, many consumers switch channels when an ad comes."

"There is a certain desperation to actually get attention and really I believe that's at the nub of this," he said.

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