By Amechi Obiakpu
In recent time, every Easter celebration in the Nigerian advertising space seem to bring with it one controversial advertising campaign or the other, which tend to touch on the religious belief of the Christian faith.
For many Christians, the trend has become one too many especially with brands which harp on the Easter festivities to commemorate with Christians through their advertising campaign but, fail to recognize the religious sensibilities of the people.
The most recent is the controversial online campaign by FrieslandCampina Wamco Nigeria, makers of Peak Milk which commemorated with Christians on the occasion of Easter celebration. The company used the crucifixion of Jesus as a metaphor to promote its product. Unfortunately, the advert led to a public outcry by members of the Christian community championed by the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) who threatened to boycott Peak Milk.
The General Secretary of CAN, Barrister Joseph Daramola, described the ad copy as offensive and totally unacceptable.
“We find this advert to be insensitive, offensive, and totally unacceptable. Good Friday is a solemn day for Christians all over the world, a day we commemorate the death of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, who was crucified on the cross for our sins. It is not a day to be used for crass commercial purposes,” he said.
He added that: “We are deeply disappointed that a company of such repute would stoop so low to exploit the religious sentiments of its customers for profit.”
CAN further said that it was considering imposing sanctions against FrieslandCampina WAMCO Nigeria PLC, including a boycott of their products by its members and other well-meaning Nigerians who share its concerns.
A year earlier, Sterling Bank tested its creativity when it released a campaign in which it compared the Agege bread to the rising saviour. To say the least, the online advert attracted the anger of many Christians who rather than see the message behind the copy heaped unprintable words on the bank for denigrating the death of the rising saviour.
Following public outcry from Nigerians, the Advertising Regulatory Council of Nigeria (ARCON) waded in by promising sanctions on Sterling Bank.
In its statement ARCON Registrar/Chief Executive Dr. Olalekan Fadolapo stated, “APCON has observed with displeasure the insensitive and provocative Easter celebration advertisement by Sterling Bank Plc, which compared the resurrection of Christ with Agege bread.
“The distasteful advertisement was neither submitted nor approved for exposure by the Advertising Standards Panel (ASP), the statutory panel charged with the responsibility of ensuring that advertisements conform to the prevailing laws of the federation as well as the code of ethics of advertising in Nigeria.
“APCON will take necessary actions to ensure that Sterling Bank is sanctioned for the exposure of such offensive advertisement according to law and that no religious belief or faith is ridiculed or any blasphemous advertisement exposed in any issue.”
Among others, it is important to note from the above scenarios the following: firstly, the time and seasons the incendiary adverts were aired. ARCON’s quick intervention following public outcry in reaction to the said adverts and the fact that the materials did not go through pre-exposure vetting before their release to the general public.
It is a known fact that, advertisement is a powerful tool used by marketers and agencies to promote brands and position them in the mind of the target audience. But those adverts had certain restrictions one of which is the religious line.
According to reports, it is estimated that companies are spending more than $1 trillion annually on marketing worldwide. Be it as it may, without proper guidance, an ad can also cause controversy and turn into a nightmare instead of what the brand wants the ad to do, especially if the brand handlers fail to observe the code of the advertising rules governing the particular country vis-à-vis the religious sensibilities of the people.
According to a report by ASA, a UK based organisation, advertising Codes emphasise the care that advertisers should take to avoid causing offence on the grounds of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability or age. Significantly, however, the Code also states that an ad may be distasteful without it actually breaking the rules.
“As a general rule of thumb, advertisers should avoid using images or symbols central to a faith particularly if it’s to promote something that runs contrary to a belief or practice (such as alcohol or gambling products). Anything that appears to mock a religious belief is also likely to be considered offensive.
Incidental references to religion and light-hearted use of humour are, however, likely to be acceptable. The use of humour is an approach that requires advertisers to tread carefully.”
Denigrating religion or stifling creativity
Referencing the UK based organization, religion is certainly not off limits when it comes to advertising, however advertisers are urged to exercise common sense and restraint in how they depict it. Doing so can help avoid causing offence, prompting complaints and a lengthy sermon.
In Nigeria, many wonder the repeated occurrence of exposing ‘offensive’ and unvetted materials when the law is clearly against it. Others believe that the creative agencies behind the controversial campaigns are to be held responsible, because they ought to know better.
ARCON on its part says, it is committed to ensuring that the advertising ecosystem is sanitized and shall use all lawful means including causing the prosecution of violators of the Advertising laws of the federation.
While not undermining the Christian faith, experts say a little room should be given for creativity to thrive in the country. They differ in opinion with regards to creatives that touch on the Christian faith. Some believe ARCON should continue to wade the big stick against every material that touches on religious borderline, others call for restrain noting that, viewing every ad copy from the angle of faith denigration may be stifling creativity.
According to them, the best of creativity may not be achieved as every copy may be misinterpreted.
Chido Nwakanma, a communication strategist and IMC expert, says professionals need to show discretion and empathy when creating ad copy.
“It is a creative misadventure that shows failure in cultural communication. In this age, professionals need to show discretion and empathy. Given Nigeria’s fault lines, one could venture that it is a subtle dig at the cross,” he posited.
He also charged ARCON to take stronger punitive action against such ads that cross the line.
“We expect that ARCON should inform Nigerians about the status of the team that handled the ad. Are they registered to practice? What sanctions will it impose and when,” he queried?
On his part, veteran reputation manager and Chief Executive Officer/Lead Consultant at Leap Communications, Muyiwa Akintunde said we should be conscious of change which is here upon us.
“Firstly, maybe we are not realizing the fact that, changes are happening in our world, not necessarily in our industry and those changes also have to do with our religious belief and sentiment, because of the way the world is evolving so people are touchy about religion. Just like they are also touchy about issues of religion and ethnicity and things like that.
But, the reality of today is that you also like to look vis-à-vis creativity. These issues we are talking about touch on religion and as far as am concern we have to find a bridge between religion and creativity.
“Some people said creativity went too far. But I think it is because of the fact that we are also stiff in our religious belief.
“I am not saying we should disregard people’s belief but let us also allow some level of creativity to play otherwise, we will stifle ideas and people will not come up with great ideas.
“I think ARCON has to come up strongly to serve as deterrent. Like what is happening in NBC, stations are being sanctions for views by their guests and not their own views. Views that by the judgement of NBC could cause problem in the society and you will notice that broadcasters are becoming very careful to deal with their guests when they are on their programme. That is being proactive. Then again also give it to ARCON because there are somethings that happen spontaneously and you really need to respond. They need to go back to players in the industry and rein it into them on the measures against unvetted materials,” he pointed.
Towing similar path, Kelechi Nwosu, Chief Executive, TBWA/Concept believes, it may be a case of testing creativity or expanding our creative expressions and metaphors.
“Unfortunately, many Christians found it offensive and WAMCO has apologized. My view is that context and relevance matters when pursuing creative expressions,” he said.
In respect to ARCON, he noted that there is enough deterrents and the regulatory authority have continued to manage the industry.
“Creativity or creative expressions are better managed with rooms to wiggle. Otherwise, the creative landscape will be stifled. ARCON has done well in that respect. By the way, they were quick to call out WAMCO in the above regard. I believe the above also speaks to mitigation: Creatives must do work within the cultural context. However, we must also educate the market and the religions to have a sense of humour and allow for outlier (not offensive) creative expressions.
For Tunji Adeyinka, Experiential Marketing Association of Nigeria (EXMAN) President and Chief Executive Officer, Connect Marketing, it is a case of “taking time to get used to change”.
“The industry is getting used to the new regulations and I am sure that compliance will be higher as we move forward. ARCON has done well by reiterating the existence of the regulations so that people are aware and the rate of compliance is increased.
“To mitigate future occurrences, we need to increase awareness and monitoring,” he averred.
(First published in MediaConsortium (www.mediaconsortiumng.com) on Sunday, April 24, 2023.)
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