Sarah Britten
Sarah Britten

Why do you think I’m stupid, Cell C?

Dear Lars

I’m a Cell C customer. Well, not directly — I have a Virgin contract because I’m a commitmentphobe and at the time they were the only ones offering month-to-month — but I use your network. In fact, the words “Cell C E” probably mean more to me than any other brand I interact with, more than the Hyundai I drive or the Colgate Sensitive Pro-Relief toothpaste I use (disclaimer: Colgate is a client. But the toothpaste is still pretty good). Those words matter to me because, without them, I can’t download my mail, or tweet, or access Google maps to find out where the hell I am. I can’t download data at all, so the sight of the words “Cell C E” makes me very, very happy.

Pity I don’t get to see them that often.

So you can imagine my excitement when I saw your ad in the Sunday Times a week ago. You know, the full-page, full-colour ad addressing Trevor Noah the comedian — the dude with fantastic cheekbones and ethnically ambiguous credentials so essential in advertising in SA today — saying you’d seen his video and the Facebook page slating your brand and you were going to do something about the criticism, which, you acknowledged, was valid because you knew your service wasn’t that great.

Wow, I thought. Finally, a brand that was willing to engage with social media, that took us seriously enough to go out with a campaign brave enough to admit its failings. All that tweeting I’d done about “Words cannot express how much I hate Cell C” had finally paid off. I was especially excited because you talked about rolling out a 4G network, which would make a huge difference to someone who cannot tweet most of the time because the signal I get is so crap I can’t access the net. (Not being able to tweet is incredibly distressing for someone who spends as much time online as I do.)

Then there’s a press conference during which you announce that Trevor Noah is your new CEO, or Customer Experience Officer. Cool, I think. A lot of brands deal with their biggest critics by hiring them, and this makes strategic sense. Brands that have the balls to do this are brands I can respect. These days, honesty and authenticity count for a lot. And yes, what they say about enemies and tents is true.

Naturally, I looked at what Trevor had to say on telltrevor.co.za.

“So, how did I get to be CEO of Cell C?” he writes. “Well, it’s a bit of a story but here goes. A couple weeks ago I said some things about Cell C that Cell C weren’t too happy about. The truth hurts, what can I say? Take a look, you’ll see what I mean. What happened next was a bit of a whirlwind really. Basically, the CEO of Cell C, Lars Reichelt, decided to send me a letter … in the Sunday Times. Subtle. In it he talked about how they’re changing, how they’re building the best network in the Southern Hemisphere. How things really are going to be different. Yeah right.” etc etc blah blah fish paste.

Only, as it turns out, it wasn’t a whirlwind at all. Or subtle. Or the truth, for that matter. According to the bright sparks I follow on Twitter, who are pretty clued up when it comes to all things tech, the asktrevor url was registered back in June. Which means you’ve been planning this campaign for a while. Which also means that you uploaded that video, and you orchestrated a fake response to it. I know as well as anyone who works in this industry that it is not possible to crack and implement such a comprehensive through-the-line campaign in two weeks. Even six weeks would have been pushing it, what with agreeing on the brief, writing copy, making sure that all the right signatures were on the finalised artwork. I smelt the proverbial rat even before I started asking questions, and lo and behold, I was right. It’s all a giant PR exercise!

So, how do I feel now that I know the campaign isn’t a “whirlwind” (cringe)? Now that I know that Trevor has had a long-standing commercial relationship with Cell C; that it’s all part of a strategy, with LSMs and a campaign proposition and a rollout plan? I’ll tell you how I feel. I feel … conned. Yes, that’s the word. Conned, and not only that, fairly angry that you think I’m stupid enough to buy your bullshit artistry. It’s very slick-looking bullshit artistry, but it’s fake nonetheless, and the problem with fake is that it only works if the people it’s aimed at think it’s real.

(There’s no way you’d focus on digital unless you were aiming at the top end of the market, types who take out contracts, so I’m squarely in your target market.)

I’m not alone. People online cottoned on pretty quickly to what you were up to: essentially, the whole thing was planned, and the so-called response is fake. Here’s the thing with social media: you can’t fool the public. Somebody will check up on you, and they will find you out, and when they do, they will not be kind. If you’re not sure, you can read here, and here, or here.

Why didn’t you own up? Why have such an obviously fake blurb on a website that’s supposed to demonstrate the essence of what it is to be transparent? I would have forgiven you. Hey, it’s advertising. A little bit of exaggeration or game-playing is allowed; it’s even in the Code of Advertising Practice.

There’s a theory that there is no such thing as bad publicity and, in the words of Oscar Wilde, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. In that respect, this campaign has worked brilliantly. But all this buzz has come at a price: Cell C look like posers of the worst possible kind (I won’t even start on Trevor Noah, because this is about brands and not about individuals. Suffice to say that any credibility he might have had has been shot to pieces. If I ever see him on stage again I will personally chuck seasonally available organic fruit at him).

So yeah, I might ultimately be your customer (we schmucks with Virgin matter too). I’ll hang on a little longer to see whether you’ll actually deliver on your promises about 4G. But you’ve lied to me, and insulted me, and I will not forget that.

Best,

Sarah Britten
Cell C customer