As a journalist I'm used to being deluged by the daily tsunami of PR hype, marketing collateral and advertising relentlessly spewed-out by telcos around the globe. Sometimes some of it is useful and sometimes it's ineffable twaddle but a video ad wherein Vodafone is credited for its part in fostering the revolution in Egypt is, simply, beyond belief. Martyn Warwick reports.
The 3 minute, 59 second video is the work of the advertising agency JWT MENA (Middle East and North Africa) which was retained by Vodafone Egypt to mastermind its 'communications strategy'. The advert was shown on JWT's public web site - and caused immediate massive uproar.
The video features excerpts form a Vodafone ad campaign called "Our Power". This campaign itself was launched three weeks before the mass occupation of Cairo's Tahrir Square and the anti-government uprising that resulted in the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak.
The JWT-manufactured video shows images from the events in Tahrir Square under captions saying, ""We didn't send people to the streets, we didn't start the revolution… We only reminded Egyptians how powerful they are."
The ad then goes on to show screengrabs of Facebook and Twitter messages posted by subscribers and featuring positive comments about the Vodafone advertising campaign followed by an audio recording of Mubarak's resignation being broadcast on Egyptian TV.
Given the reality of Vodafone's rather less than gloriously revolutionary part in the overthrow of a despised regime, the backlash and furore is hardly surprising.
In a hasty attempt at a damage limitation exercise, Vodafone Egypt quickly distanced itself from the video, claiming it to be solely the work JWT and adding that it was put up on the JWT-Vodafone public website without Vodafone's approval.
A statement reads, "Vodafone Egypt denies responsibility for the video that circulated on social media channels including highlights of a Vodafone commercial. Hatem Dowidar, CEO of Vodafone Egypt, confirmed that the company does not have any connection to this video and had no prior knowledge of its production or posting on the Internet. Vodafone Egypt is part of a global company that has strict policies refraining associating the Brand name with any political or religious affairs of any country in which it operates."
Bit of a cock-up there then, eh? If Vodafone's marcoms people didn't know what JWT was doing on its behalf then there's something very wrong and heads should roll.
JWT MENA also did could to put out a fire that was already burning out of control but, in the event, it could only produce a pathetic stream of corporate widdle, claiming that the video was " a case study for internal presentation purposes only" and was "not intended for public display". Given this claim, one has to wonder how it managed to be posted on the public Internet - that's hardly an easy mistake to make.
The fact is that many of those who rebelled against Mubarak's 30 years of dictatorship blame Vodafone and Egypt's other mobile operators for cravenly acceding to the regime's demands that mobile, text and and internet services be cut. Indeed, not only did they fail to put up any resistance, Vodafone and the others actually mass-distributed pro-government texts to their subscribers.
When the hurly-burly was done and Mubarak removed from power, Vodafone apologised and said that it had had no choice other than to accede to regime's demands. Its critics say that Egypt's mobile operators could have continued to provide normal service until the government moved in and shut down the networks but, for commercial reasons, they were "complicit in dictatorship" and even went so far as to pass on to Mubarak's security services information about opposition activists.
In a a statement posted on its website, Vodafone Egypt says, “We would like to make it clear that the authorities in Egypt have the technical capability to close our network, and if they had done so it would have taken much longer to restore services to our customers. It has been clear to us that there were no legal or practical options open to Vodafone… but to comply with the demands of the authorities.”
Interestingly, Vodafone and other mobile operators are in line to get a speedy payout of compensation for loss of profits during the period their services were disripted. Ordinary customers though are not due to get anything. To make matters worse some of them are only now (i.e. this week) being reconnected. Strange that.
The posting of the video led to the immediate creation of the website ihateVodafoneEgypt.com. Many famous and influential opponents of the old regime have left posts on the site. Here's a typical one: "It is not only arrogant and obnoxious and offensive, it is delusional, when that agency is advertising for one of the mobile companies that took part in the communication blackout that Egypt experienced; Vodafone, the very one that sent us those pro-government messages, seems to think they can play around the timing of an ad that had nothing to do with anything but pure market competition."
Says it all really.
Unsurprsingly, given Vodafone Egypt's embarrassment the offending video has now gone missing from the JWT/Vodafone website and is slowly being taken down from various YouTube and other social networking sites. Yes, the same old censorship is at work. Anyone wishing to see the piece now gets a screen saying, "This ad is no longer available due to a copyright claim by Vodafone Egypt."
Last week ex-President Hosni Mubarak, the former Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif and the former Interior Minister Habib al-Adly were fined US$90 million by an Egyptian civil court for their role in initiating and enforcing the comms blackout. Chicken feed to Mubarak whose personal fortune, gained by looting Egypt's exchequer over a generation, is a estimated to be at least US$80 billion.
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