Tales of great marketing communication from our own political Twilight Zone – and Volvo breaks the advertising mould

There are times, in modern-day South Africa, when you feel as though you have woken up in some sort of Twilight Zone – where things are upside down, or not where you expect them to be.

So, in the past week or so, we have seen the Democratic Alliance – via Joburg mayor Herman Mashaba – proposing a highly socialist and anti-free market housing policy which will force property developers to set aside portions of any new development for low-cost rentals. The policy did not originate from the comrades at either the ANC or the EFF…

Then we have the almost surreal picture of the new ANC administration under President Cyril Ramaphosa preparing to do battle with labour unions in a manner which would have done the “Iron lady” – British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher – proud.

Most stunning aspect about the new tough stance on the unions was a piece of marketing communication from the Department of Labour. It was a no-holds-barred warning to unions by Thembinkosi Mkalipi, Chief Director for Collective Bargaining in the Department of Labour, which ran as an ad in a number of newspapers recently.

It stood out like the proverbial sore thumb because, clearly, it had been written by a journalist or writer, no doubt with some tabloid experience – and to a “scare them shitless” brief from the client.

dept labour

Mkalipi used very un-bureaucratic language in warning the unions that, if they did not get their houses in order with regards to strike ballots and picketing issues, “We will deregister you and you know the consequences.”

Among those consequences, would be that the union would not be able to represent its members at CCMA hearings and the union would not be able to go to the Labour Court either.

“All hell will break loose. Your competitor will approach your members saying: you are wasting your time with this union”.

Very strong stuff indeed, especially from a department which has long been accused of being a sucker for workers and an enemy of business and of hampering the process of job creation and even investment.

There were plenty of other instances of tabloid language – “hot issue”, “chilling message to labour” and “dire consequences” – making the overall ad radically different from the often mealie-mouthed government communication. Mkalipi also resisted the temptation to have his photo adorn the piece, as many other ministers, MECs and even directors-general often do.

The message will not have gone down well with labour – but that is not what we are discussing here. The department’s ad set new standards for plain-talking government communication. It was easy, and interesting, to read.

Long may it continue – and let’s hope other departments follow this example.

An Orchid to the Department of Labour and to whoever wrote this “take no prisoners” piece of communication.

There is a weird, but attractive Volvo ad flighting on TV at the moment for the company’s XC40 SUV.

Set to a new version of the song “My Favourite Things”, from the Sound of Music (yes, really), the ad supposedly tells the story of a young woman looking, in a disillusioned way, at the hectic, shallow modern world around her – in which consumerism and advertising play a major part.

The way the ad has been edited for South Africa focuses on the car itself, ending up with it being one of her “favourite things” – somewhere she can get back to her happy space.

As such it does work, but it will be interesting to see if Volvo follows through with the full ad, which promotes a programme called “Care” – where people can rent, rather than own the XC40. Or, as Volvo puts it, “the car you can subscribe to”.

The punchline in that, overseas, version is clever, and thought-provoking: By not owning things, you are not owned by things”.

That’s a direct appeal to all the modern and the modern-at-heart who are financially comfortable enough to make such statements. It’s alluring: I am free. I go where I want.

Of course, I live in a nice apartment, no doubt I know where to get the best espresso and I rent my car… But, still part of the system lovey.

But, overall, the ad is quirky and intriguing. Volvo is still considering whether the Care scheme can be introduced in this country…we will only know sometime next year.

But, even as it stands, the ad has a magnetic quality, luring you in by piquing your curiosity. And it works here to sell (as opposed to subscribe to)a car, so it gets an Orchid from me.

The Onion this week goes to Telkom. They want me to take fibre and, oddly enough, just as they set up their little marketing gazebo on the corner near us, my ADSL line goes on the blink…as does the phone.

Funny coincidence, guys? I don’t think so. I think it is cynical marketing to push me to go fibre while you allow the copper-based system to continue to deteriorate.

My question: Why should I reward you for treating me like dirt? Do I look like an ANC supporter in Mahikeng?

Forcing me to even ask that question means you have one very irate customer. That’s bad marketing. That’s an Onion, Telkom.

Getting lost in translation is one thing, but using someone else’s incorrect, and dangerous, garbage is something totally different

I am not always convinced that a brand which makes arbitrary funny gags as “content” – which is light on, or even missing, a marketing message – is doing the right thing. A brand exists to sell its product or service, not to entertain.

Having said that, though, the most memorable ads are the ones which not only make you smile or laugh, but which also have a strong link to the brand.

So I am a bit torn about the latest ad for King Price insurance, which was put up on their Facebook page and, thanks to assiduous marketing and social media plugging, has “gone viral”. I am conflicted because it is indeed funny – and very South African – but there is no obvious link to an insurance product.

King Price maintains that the link is that, in the ad, something major gets “lost in translation”, much as insurance companies and their customers often don’t communicate clearly enough.

That “lost in translation” joke apparently is an adaptation of a joke told by the father of Bennie Fourie. Fourie junior styles himself as a “writer/actor/film-maker” and he has set up a production/company/agency with the like-minded and experienced Bouwer Bosch. Their company, Freckle, came up with the concept and made it a production reality.

What we see is an ordinary day on the “plaas”. A worker is toting a bale of hay around when he hears seductive music coming from one of the barns. He peeps around the door and is shocked to see the “boer” almost “making love” to a very old, and very battered, tractor. It’s all swoons and gyrations and pouting of lips. (In that sense, it reminds me very much of “Boet” from the old Castrol “Can of the Best” ads from back in the day.)
When the boer realises he being watched, he ruefully explains (in Afrikaans) that he has been having some problems in the “love department” and that the “Engelse dokter” in the drop had recommended that he “do something sexy to attract her”… and that gets lost in translation to end up as “do something sexy to a tractor…”

It’s a bit corny but you can’t help but smile. And we certainly need things to cheer us up in this current South African reality. It’s difficult to think badly about someone, or something, which has made you smile.

Something like this does get people talking and, when it goes viral, then a brand gets to far more places. So that’s clever marketing. An Orchid for King Price and for Freckle.

An organisation branded “Arrive Alive” would surely not be careless or cavalier when it comes to road safety…that’s what you would think, anyway.

Yet, it has just made itself guilty of the same unthinking, and reckless social media sharing which has got many into trouble. More than that, though, it is guilty of posting something potentially dangerous.

This piece of “fake news” Tweeted by Arrive Alive came from roadsafety.co.za
It posed the legitimate question about what you would do if you discovered you were running out of fuel on the highway. But – and this is a huge but – the material used in answer to that question was a heap of rubbish, which appears to have originated in America and then been put into an amateurish graphic in the Philippines. I am not kidding…

There are plenty are Americanisms – references to “gas”, “miles”, “mph” (miles per hour if you can remember that far back or were not around in the 1970s, when South Africa switched to the Metric system) – as well as mixed-up tenses (a common Americanism) but also just plain bad writing. Example: “If this unfortunately happens to you, have a presence of mind”.

Then there is also a silly reference to being able to download an app, which will enable you to have fuel delivered. In South Africa?

But the worst, and most dangerous, piece of this idiocy is the recommendation that, as soon as you see you are about to run out of fuel, “Get into the right lane immediately…”
That’s fine in the USA, where they drive on the right and the right hand lane is the slow lane. In this country, it is the opposite. Getting into the fast lane and slowing down to save fuel, will almost certainly help you “Arrive Not Alive”.

arrive alive

This is a warning to all those people responsible for a brand’s social media: get your facts right. Just because someone else posted it doesn’t mean it’s either correct or appropriate.
An Onion to roadsafety.co.za, as well as to Arrive Alive. Remove this rubbish as soon as possible from the information superhighway.


Country roads, take me home… to the ad which makes me want to take a road trip.

One of my greatest pleasures is a road trip. Getting up before sunrise, packing, with the aroma of the bacon-and-egg sarmies wafting through the car, almost as heady as the anticipation in the air. And this country, South Africa, has provided me, and my family, with some amazing memories.

In the old days, the then SA tourism body, Satour, used to have a slogan which talked about a “world in one country”. Even though that’s not used today, it is still apt. There is so much to see and do within the borders of this country that you sometimes have to wonder why you would go anywhere else.

I’ve sat amazed when friends and colleagues talk to me about trips overseas, yet they have not travelled the Garden Route or looked out over the Blyde River Canyon…

And, when you see a great ad which speaks to the idea of a road trip, the accelerator foot gets itchy again. Such was the case for me with the latest spot for SA Tourism’s Sho’t Left campaign to get people to see their own country.

It’s all so familiar: the early morning, the car packing, the sarmies, and, especially, the excitement. The ads takes us across the breadth of the country, from beautiful beaches to magnificent mountains, to exotic eateries. All the while, it’s about fun.

The interesting thing about the ad – and one cannot ignore this in a country as obsessed with race as we are – is that the only people in it are black. Now, in anticipation of the howls of “racism!” from whiteys, I think it is intelligent marketing.
The reality about the South African tourism scene is that black people are only now – 24 years after the end of apartheid – starting to travel more inside their own country. They will be the lifeblood which keep the tourism industry growing into the future. Yet, the long-awaited “freedom dividend” for the industry is still some way off.
There are still places in South Africa where black people feel uncomfortable because they are dominated by white guests. The ad doesn’t, correctly, address that, but seeks to convey to young, black, upwardly mobile people, what they have on their own doorstep.
In doing so, there is a vibe and an energy which should really make even the old fart whiteys like me yearn to get out there. And I did, despite the fact that the first time I saw the SA Tourism ad, I had just got back from a magic weekend in the Groot Marico.

So Orchids to SA Tourism, to FCB Joburg and to Ola! Films. And I only have one thing to add: Forests! I need to breathe the clean air of forests and mountains…

I have tried to stay away from commenting on the controversial listing/non-listing on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange of the Sagarmatha Technologies group…mainly because they will accuse me of attacking them because they are our competitors (they are the company which, effectively, runs Independent Newspapers).

I cannot comment on the very convoluted and technical financial stories I have read about the so-called tech behemoth which should have had a market capitalisation of R50 billion. However, there are a couple of curiosities from a marketing point of view which, while they might not deserve an outright Onion, certainly deserve a comment.

The use of words in a marketing context is critical, because they say so much about you and your products – and particularly in ways you never intended. And there are a few words used by Sagaramatha which make you wonder if they had any professional advice about corporate identity.

The references to the “Galactic Superhighway” – upon which this giant is about to travel – are nonsensical. Galactic? Are you going into space? Superhighway? What? Isn’t that just an outdated way of describing the Internet (with Information ahead of it)? This sort of language might appeal to fans of TV’s Big Bang Theory comedy…but serious investors? Not such.

Then there is the big noise about the group is that it is going to be Africa’s answer to Google, Amazon etc. So why on Earth name the company after an Asian landmark, Mount Everest, and use its local name? What would have been wrong with Kilimanjaro, or Zambezi, for instance?

The next curiosity is the insistence that the group is a stock market “Unicorn” – i.e. a tech start-up with a market cap of more than 1 billion US dollars.
The Unicorn is, though, a mythical beast. Pretty much like Sagarmatha’s JSE listing, which was abandoned last week when the exchange said the group had failed to meet the technical requirements.

If words are not really that important, then why not rename the Group “Titanic Limited”?

Orchids for Wimpy cuteness – but Onions for PR sloppiness…

There’s cute and there’s cute and knowing how not to overdo it or get too twee and clever – that’s what makes the difference between ordinary and great advertising.

I recently panned Sanlam for using a precocious, overly cute girl in one of its ads…but now along comes Wimpy and gets it just right.

Ad agency FCB Joburg have a knack of getting the tone and South African-ness of their ads just right and the Wimpy series of recent years has been entertaining and funny.
The one ad which got everybody going “aww” was the one about “Mr Cuddles”, the giant furry teddy bear who, apparently, plays a major role in the family. The first time we saw Mr Cuddles, he was being blamed by the greedy Dad, who could not stop himself from nicking some of Mum’s cheese-griller sausages when she went to the loo.
“Mr Cuddles took them, I swear,” was Dad’s transparent little lie. That, in turn, got his cute daughter to raise her eyebrows in that look that every idiot father knows so well…”

“This guy,” she sighed.

In the latest episode, the family are again in a Wimpy and the daughter asks Dad if he can remember the time he blamed Mr Cuddles for stealing the cheese grillers. “Yes…” he responds, a little hesitantly.

“Well,” she says with that Madam-type attitude that we Dads know well, “Now it’s payback time”.
She reaches over to take away Dad’s delicious-looking milkshake. He pulls it back: “Don’t you think you’re a little too big for Mr Cuddles now?”

Her response, as she takes his milkshake away again, is: “Don’t you think you’re a little too big for this milkshake now?”

Good point. He could use with losing a bit of weight. He turns to his wife, who giggles, not terribly supportive at all.


It’s simple. It’s funny. It continues a long-running gag. And, in all that, it also showcases Wimpy’s tempting food…and the fact that it’s a great place for a family meal.

And so, another Orchid for Wimpy and one for FCB Joburg, as well as for Egg Films. You’re not too big for one of those…

Let’s call this next section: “Why you should read your press releases before sending them out to the cynical media…”

A couple of weeks ago I got a release from MasterDrive South Africa, which talked about the troubles at the Road Accident Fund.

Firstly, it referred to the things being done at the fund to “stabalise the liabilities” of the fund. The word is, actually, stabilise, people.

Worse was to come, though, as someone described as “Herbert” began making comments about the situation. There was no clue as to whether his first name or surname was Herbert and who he was within the MasterDrive organisation. Maybe he was Mr Cuddles’s brother, who knows? The release didn’t give any clues.

Sloppy press release writing and even sloppier checking, so PR Onion Number 1 to MasterDrive. I hope your vehicular coaching is better than your communication skills.

PR Onion Number 2 goes to one Londeka Ngubane, of Training24 at an organisation called asmcomm.co.za

The email with the release was titled “Creative Writting for Business & Media”. In details of the R8 grand per delegate writing (one t) course asmcomm was offering, there was a section on “proof reading”.

Presumably you will be on that course, Londeka…

But this sort of thing should not be left to one person. If you are serious about accuracy – which is, after all, what you claim to be able to teach people – make sure you are accurate.


When cute becomes cloying and how to win (and lose) at the car insurance business

Sometimes cute does work in advertising. And sometimes, as a critic of advertising, if you pan something which is cute – or, even more dangerous, includes an animal – you incur the wrath of diverse constituencies, whose hate mail wishes you all manner of unpleasantness.

I learned that the hard way some years ago when I had a go at “Buddy”, Toyota’s long-served Boxer dog, which featured in a series of ads over a long time. I suggested that it was time he was put down…
South Africans do love their dogs…and their Toyotas. And they do love cute.

But I think cute for cute’s sake can detract from the serious point you’re trying to make in your advertising.

Just in case you think it is just me, the grumpy old git, again, let me point out that when latest TV commercial for Sanlam comes on, it’s my wife who yells at me “Change the Channel!” (seriously, which household is it where the women have control over the remote on a normal TV night?).

Titled “Bright Idea” (yo, cool one, copywriting dudes), it features weapons-grade cuteness in the form of a little bicycle-riding girl. She pedals through the streets of a town on the outskirts of San Francisco (and tells us so in what is quite clearly a South African accent) and then heads for a local fire station where, so Wikipedia tells us, a light bulb has been burning continuously (other one or two times it was switched off) for more than 116 years.

With a wise head (and and even wiser copywriter), Miss Cutie Pie asks: “Why can’t we make things to last?”


Cue Sanlam, which will make your money last and keep it going, just like that light bulb.

You went all the way to the States with a local kid (unless you dubbed the sound track afterwards) to make this ad? Didn’t we have anything locally which could have made the same point?

But what really irks me is the cloying cuteness of the whole thing. I’d prefer the people looking after my money to be expert, rather than cute.

So, Sanlam, you get a long-lasting Onion (this will go online and, as people are now beginning to realise, nothing ever dies in cyberspace, so it will be around, somewhere, far into the future.

After starting off with an Onion, I’ll follow it up will another well-deserved Orchid for the people at agency Joe Public (this time Joe Public Unlimited) for the thought-provoking activation they did on behalf on the Apartheid Museum on Human Rights Day.

At selected restaurants around the country, patrons who ate there were presented with an extra bill, that of the human cost of Apartheid.

It was done just like a restaurant bill – but with lives, instead of Rands and cents. And it was sobering. A reminder that the day was not just a “day off” for wining and dining, but for remembering those who sacrificed to get us to where we are today.

bill or rights final
Excellent piece of work, So Orchids to the Apartheid Museum and to Joe Public Unlimited, particularly, for proving that advertising and marketing does have some redeeming social value.

And now for an interesting tale about the power of advertising.

I have been insured through a firm of brokers for ten years, with only one claim and no hassles. This year, when renewal time came around and I had no response to some urgent queries, I got in a huff.

Instantly, thanks to the call-to-action marketing out there, I went on hippo.co.za to get some comparison quotes. After giving details online, I was called back in double quick time and gave some more details, and again in double quick time, got a number of different quotes.

DialDirect was a name which stuck in my mind (as did the five others mind you) and, because it was at the top of the list, I opted for that.

Again, very efficient follow up (within minutes). Gave even more detail and was then sent a detailed quote. I had a query on that, which was handled quickly. Then, finally, and ready to sign, I sent an email to confirm where the insured vehicles would be parked during the day, wanting to be absolutely accurate (as they tell you to be when dealing with insurance).

Three weeks later, I am still waiting for a call back from DialDirect.

That didn’t do much for my mood, so I contacted OUTsurance – this time my train of thought was started by a OUTsurance-branded licence disc holder lying on my desk.
And, surprise, surprise, OutSurance lived up to its claims (or more correctly, the claims of its customers) in its current TV commercials: good, friendly service (even if there were a few extra calls to correct mistakes) and a good rate.


I save R4 000 annually on two cars. And no, I am not being paid to say this.

So, for living up to your promises, OutSurance, you get an Orchid from me.

But, as for DialDirect, I am considering giving you the Onion of Lost Opportunities…but I will get back to you on that. I promise…

“Cityproof” Nissan Qashqai hits the urban edgy spot, but latest Castle Lager ad has no fizz, bru (brew?)…

I’ve always had a soft spot for Nissan: I learned to drive in a Datsun (that was originally the main brand and corporate name for Nissan) and I own a rare Datsun sportscar. But other than those cars, I’ve never felt that attracted to Nissan’s modern day products, interesting and quality cars though they are.

The company definitely has its finger on the pulse of young urban dwellers – its Micra, Juke and Qashqai models are different from their competitors and have a huge component of funky in their DNA.

Even though I am not an urban youngster or a “millennial”, I think Nissan is on target with its marketing of all those vehicles.

In particular, the Qashqai – no I am not sure how to pronounce it – has been one of the global company’s big successes. It is said to be the biggest-selling “urban crossover” in Europe and is doing well in South Africa, despite the fact it is competing in a difficult market and in a segment with plenty of players.

Clearly, though, Nissan wants to keep the urban chic aspect of the Qashqai going and that’s exactly what it has gone for – in conjunction with ad agency TBWA Hunt Lascaris.
The latest TV ad features the punchline “Cityproof” and shows how you can go a bit wild even in the middle of “civilisation”.

We see a bunch of daredevil “longboarders…young, funky men and women who whizz down hills on their roller boards at insane speeds, performing crazy stunts.

I understand the ad took its inspiration from a crew of longboarders from Cape Town, Gravity Dogz, headed by Decio Lourenco. They were used in the ad to weave in and out as the Qashqai heads downhill, also accentuating the “Intelligent safety” features on the car, including blind spot warning, cameras and emergency braking.

It’s the kind of video vignette which attracts attention, as does the whole genre of adrenalin adventures…so it hits the target market spot on. At the same time, it does more than just push the brand, it details the virtues of the product. That is not always easy to achieve in one ad.

Orchids to Nissan, TBWA Hunt Lascaris and Egg Prodcutions, as well as the crew from Gravity Dogz. Big Ups, dudes.

No big ups, unfortunately, for the latest ad for Castle Lager and its new 1-litre bottle.The copywriters strained every possible clever cell in coming up with the one-syllable expressions of – what is it? Howzit, I suppose. Or even… wonder? – in rolling out bru (brew,geddit?); bro, bruski etc etc.

Four people gathered at their door to greet the long lost buddy who has returned with his enormous 1-litre bottle of beer and they express their glee when he arrives. He only has one bottle, though.

Which means that the total of five people only get 200ml each…and you see them with their pathetically small glasses.

Who on earth only has 200ml of beer?

The ad is a silly attempt at being clever in the first place and, even though it is an ad, badly fails at the first test of logic.So it gets an extra large Onion (to be split between the copywriters).

Corporate social responsibility should be more than a clever marketing con trick…

Corporate social responsibility, as a concept, sounds fine in theory…but in practice, it often turns out to be another marketing scam. I would far rather that a brand put real effort and commitment into improving the lot of people in society by lowering prices and reducing rapacious profit margins (to say nothing about outrageous executive salary bills) than telling me how it’s supporting communal veggie gardens in a rural area.

But, it is also true that brands can be important agents for social change (even though that is not their primary purpose for existing).

So when I see brands which appear to be working for common, societal, good, rather than just using charity as cynical marketing, then I sit up and pay attention.

Last week marked International Women’s Day and, all around the world, brands focused, in their marketing, on pressing issues facing women .

In South Africa, where we have one of the planet’s worst rates of woman and child abuse, two particular campaigns caught my attention.

A colleague of mine noticed the gut punch campaign for Carling Label beer, a video of which was done last year, promoting the idea of “Champion Men” – those who do not beat women and kids. It hurts to watch that video…and that’s the point: we men who see it should be ashamed, and ashamed enough to change our abusive behaviour towards women.

Carling Black Label took it even further on March 3, when it arranged for a group for women singers to take to the field before the start of the Soweto Derby between Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs. Before the packed stadium, they sang the well-known song, Masambe Nono, with the lyrics changed to tell the story of a woman who suffers from abuse after her husband comes home from a soccer match. Being under the influence of alcohol is not an excuse, a team losing a match is not an excuse.

The song hit home and many were the men in the stadium who, if they did not hang their heads in shame, were given pause for thought.

A brilliant idea. A brilliant place to air it. And a real way to help the women of our country. It was also a brave move for an alcohol brand to take, because abuse of alcohol and abuse for women often go hand in hand, or should that be fist in face?

First for Women, the insurance company, did a similar thing, capitalising on that week’s episode of the hugely popular Grey’s Anatomy on M-Net, which saw the story of violence involving Jo Wilson (Camilla Luddington) and her abusive ex-husband, Paul (Matthew Morrison) reach a horrifying climax.

This season of the show has been dealing with the issue of women abuse and, in the US, one episode title was changed to that of the National Domestic Violence Hotline in the US.

Even though the show in South Africa still had the original episode title, 1st for Women took out ads during the show and a ticker tape, along with social media conversations, to promote its online platform, For Women, which features resources for abused women.

Another brand using its clout to make a difference. And that is what genuine corporate social responsibility is all about.

So Orchids to Carling Black Label and to First for Women.