THE fighting between the African National Congress (ANC) and First National Bank (FNB) raises interesting ethical and political issues.
There are a few considerations that FNB needs to take into account, first among these the ethical question of using children for commercial purposes.
An advertising campaign of a big corporation like FNB is aimed at increasing market share. The idea that FNB is this good, benevolent organisation that wishes to "help" everyone, is the selling line to promote the real intent: making more profits.
There is in principle nothing wrong with this approach. This is the nature of advertising in a free-market economy. Advertising costs millions and is an integral part of a carefully planned brand strategy that in the end must contribute visibly to the bottom line.
But the moment children are used, questions can be raised: were consent forms signed on behalf of the children under 18? Was any money paid to the children to participate in the research and eventually in the advertising campaign? And was there explicit approval from them or their guardians to post their comments on the website?
Whether it concerns banking services, video games, baby products or clothing, the exploitation of children in the advertising industry is a matter of grave concern, and FNB should have known this.
According to newspaper reports, FNB’s survey of young people included 1,360 pupils and students from Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape. Unless this sample has been carefully selected and benchmarked, it seems quite flawed from a research perspective.
FNB was probably not viewing this as a "research project" in the academic sense of the word. But the moment FNB puts a selection of such an unrepresentative sample in the public domain, it opens itself to serious critique of playing selective politics.
I am not even asking the question of whether the children in the TV advert and in the social media were provided with carefully written scripts which they then presented as their own comments.
Once these preliminary ethical questions are out of the way, one can then turn to the content of the comments. The ones I have seen and read seem quite realistic and do not tell us anything brand new, except that it comes from the most important stakeholder group: those who will have to live in the kind of country we as adults are now preparing for them.
We need more of these voices and FNB has "helped" to remind us of actually taking our young people far more seriously.
This brings us to the other party in the conflict. The ANC, which often conflates party and government, does not like public criticism. There is now a well-established pattern. One thinks back to the pressure on FNB around its crime campaign, the blatant vilifying of Nedbank chairman Reuel Khoza, the pressure on the Goodman Gallery during the controversy over The Spear, the artwork depicting President Jacob Zuma with his genitals exposed, proposed laws on access to information, and current legal processes in the name of Zuma against a number of newspapers.
What makes this specific example quite complex, is the fact that there is a business relationship between three parties: the ANC as an independent political formation, the government or state apparatus, and FNB as a banker.
The ANC as a political party has the full right to react as it wishes to the actions of FNB. And FNB has to accept that it risks its client relation with the ANC if it seemingly allows criticism of the party. Apologies from FNB and FirstRand CEO Sizwe Nxasana have to be understood in this context of protecting legitimate shareholder interests and not simply as "bowing before political power". The client is always right.
But the ANC is not the government. The government has a duty to respect freedom of expression — including perceived criticism of its actions or inaction. In fact, the government should welcome criticism, as this is part of the process of listening carefully to all the citizens of the country, even if it does not like what it hears.
FNB therefore need not apologise to the government, because it merely exercised the right of it and the children to freedom of expression. As responsible citizens, FNB CEO Michael Jordaan and FNB must affirm and stand on this right.
The government is tasked with taking decisions on where to bank public money purely on business and transparent procurement principles. If FNB gives the best service or best interest rate, so be it — no matter its specific political views.
To talk of "treason" is dangerous and an utter misconception, as it is based on the false assumption that criticism of either the ANC or the government is a betrayal of the country. That was the old National Party’s scaring tactics. One would have expected greater maturity from the ruling party and our government.
But perhaps FNB planned all this. They are getting millions of rand’s worth of free marketing, are they not?
• Naudé is the former head of the business school and currently deputy vice-chancellor: academic at the Nelson Mandela Metro University in Port Elizabeth. He writes in his personal capacity. This article is to inform and educate, not to advise.