One of South Africa’s oldest banks just called its education minister “brainless”

The ruling party African National Congress (ANC) president Jacob Zuma, left, with his deputy Kgalema Motlanthe, right, have a marred image to reform.
The ruling party African National Congress (ANC) president Jacob Zuma, left, with his deputy Kgalema Motlanthe, right, have a marred image to reform.
Image: AP Photo / Themba Hadebe
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As the dust settles from the government’s trampling of South Africa’s First National Bank (FNB), it’s hard to conclude which of the two is the biggest loser. The skirmish has brought to light just how sensitive the African National Congress’ (ANC) government is to criticism, but also a lesson, as some analysts say, why big business should not mix politics with advertising.

On Jan. 17, FNB launched a big advertising campaign called “You Can Help” by live broadcasting what they claimed were unscripted speeches by young South Africans critiquing the state of the country. Reports quote one of the clips as calling the education minister Angie Motshekga “brainless.” The minister’s department was heavily criticized for failing to deliver text books to Limpopo province for most of 2012. Another video said: “The country is being overrun by poverty… while [President] Jacob Zuma is renovating his home.” This is a direct reference to what is being called Nkandlagate, a controversy over the R200 million purportedly spent to upgrade the president’s private residence.

It came out last week that the clips were actually scripted, which caused the government to reprimand the banks’ executives. The bank then withdrew the campaign and apologized to the government. The TV ad, the only video clip remaining, is of 17-year-old Kelly Baloyi making an impassioned plea against the country’s “greed, mistrust,” (many read this to refer to the government, though there is no attribution), the  “violence and our indifferences to the violence,” and the “children of this land being slaves to illiteracy.” Essentially corruption, crime and education touch on the ANC’s political weak spots.

Few were surprised when the ANC and its legion of supporting bodies immediately called the campaign a direct attack on its government, with the ANC Youth League going as far as branding it “treasonous.” Just last year, when Nedbank chairman Reuel Khoza called the ANC a “strange breed of leaders,” he was ridiculed by ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, who said he “must sell Nedbank and not venture into something he does not know.”

A few days after President Jacob Zuma declared on Jan. 11 that business leaders should align themselves to the ANC to further their business interests, the FNB launched the You Can Help campaign. Zuma’s statement about government and business collaboration angered opposition parties who saw the plea as irresponsible in light of the country’s high corruption rates. It could be argued that the FNB has become an example of what happens to businesses that criticize rather than align with the government.

Bernice Samuels, Chief Marketing Officer of FNB, said through her communications department, that the campaign had a social and nation-building focus. The bank has established itself as savvy and customer-centered, having received  a global award for the being the most innovative bank of the year in 2012. The bank’s “How Can We Help You?” tagline is evident in their service at branches and even on Twitter, with their FNB account responding to queries in a quick and kind manner.

FNB says it was taken aback by the ANC’s response, claiming their intention was misread. In a formal statement it said:

Our only intention with the campaign is to provide a platform through which we believe, as South Africans, we can use the power of help to make a positive difference in building a stronger, unified, values based nation.

The head of FirstRand (which FNB is a subsidiary of), Sizwe Nxasana, was quoted as assuring the offended ANC minister in leaked SMS’s that he would find out how the videos ended up on the How Can You Help blog. CEO of FNB, Michael Jordaan denied rumors on Twitter early last week that he was resigning.

Despite the sympathies that have come FNB’s way, some marketing analysts say that the bank was ignorant to put out the campaign.

Marketing analyst Chris Moerdyk told the Mail & Guardian that FNB’s intentions may have been pure, but “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.” Moerdyk says the team that dreamed up the idea of including video footage from children was “clearly completely out of touch with the current political environment.”

Jonathan Cherry, editor of marketing trends website, says in FNB’s defense, even he was surprised by the level of animosity the campaign has generated from the ruling party. He says that political statements are best left to business leaders and CEO’s of industry.“It surprises me when corporate pitches advertising campaigns based on politics, especially if they have not done so from the start.”

But FNB is no stranger to political controversy as Business Day columnist David Gleason points out. FNB has lived through the country’s political history as one of the nation’s oldest banks and angered presidents of both the apartheid regime and post-apartheid regime. Gleason refers to FNB as a “serial advertising offender.”

Moerdyk says that by angering the ANC, FNB risks offending the 60% of the voting public that is a huge part of its target market and supports the ANC. On the other hand, the ANC is cementing its reputation as a government that is beyond reproach, ready to pounce at any hint of disfavor from outside quarters.