To more positive communication
A recent campaign set me badly on edge. The campaign addressed a national issue, and judging from reporting on activities, it was effective within its self-determined scope, and it created awareness of the issue. However the campaign addressed a less significant part of the issue, and almost certainly caused a few job losses for some of Namibia’s poorest.
The campaign was showy, but did not visibly address its impact on the poor. My personal feeling is that it apparently did not provide for alternative ways to improve on practices in the particular segment. I also note that there are far larger contributors to the issue, which might have been dealt with.
I am being circumspect here because of residual fondness for the agency concerned.
Communication can be damaging, and its socio-economic impact needs to be considered broadly. In other words the communicators need to have eyes in the back of their heads. The responsibility only rests slightly with the agency though, and the bulk of the responsibility rests with the commissioning entity, the client.
Agency business is difficult. Firstly there is a high degree of competition. In Namibia, where the client pool is small, competition has to be fierce. There are three primary ways for a larger agency to sustain itself. Firstly, it needs obvious impact on the bottom line or behaviour. Secondly, it needs notable creativity, as its own method of drawing attention to itself. Thirdly, a degree of specialisation will go a long way, however this is almost impossible in Namibia’s small market.
In other words, Namibian agencies have to be effective, and they have to seize every opportunity to show their creative chops. When a creative idea comes along, the agency has to seize it enthusiastically and defend it.
The client on the other hand, has to look past the excitement and glamour, and find the impacts, positive and negative
Some of this can be predicted, for instance in the case I refer to above, a shutdown or reduction of this sort of economic activity will cause job losses. If this is the case then the client has to mitigate, typically by providing alternatives or reconsidering how the communication is deployed.
Consider the idea that has surfaced periodically in the last few years of closing the shebeens. Although access to vast amounts of alcohol fuels social ills, shebeens support families. So the obvious question is not how to get rid of shebeens, but how to replace them. Communication can rouse the mob to burn shebeens, but it would be better if it looked at the root of the problem.
In other instances, the change will become apparent, and impact has to be monitored to watch for danger signs. Remember the scandal of the cola that was given to infants due to misinterpretation of its slogan. And locally, the retreat from the slogan ‘AIDS is the enemy’ was also abandoned due to a disastrously poor interpretation.
There are also instances where advertising can become predatory. Nowadays advertising to children, a notoriously impressionable segment, is generally well controlled in many markets to prevent abuse.
The questions surrounding the impact of communication depend on the ethical bounds of a combination of the client and the agency. It is fair to say that an agency may want to put breaks on a process and message that it believes is damaging to broader society as well. It happens. I have been in several situations where agencies have decided not to pursue business potential due to the dubious nature of the product or service.
One of the simplest ways of dealing with the matter is to use the PR techniques for stakeholder management to get a broader picture that does not just focus on the bottom line. The concept of ‘a market’ is typically only driven by direct impact.
Various global incidents point to the need for better social impact in advertising. It is worth thinking about it in the Namibian context as well.