To rid the advertising industry of unhealthy practices, the Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria (APCON), through its Advertising Standards Panel (ASP), has embarked on reformative steps, with the latest being the ban on Guinness Ad, which is currently generating controversy, Raheem Akingbolu reports
Of all the committees of the Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria (APCON), two have been more popular in the last few years because of the sensitive roles assigned to them by the regulatory body.
They are the Advertising Standards Panel (ASP) and APCON Special Committee on Media Debt Issue (ASCOMDI), which was inaugurated in 2007, when APCON intervened to settle issues related to debt between agencies and media owners. ASP, on the other hand, is a statutory committee of the council, which was set up by law to ensure compliance with advertising standards and advertising laws in Nigeria.
From any angle one chooses to look at it, the two committees could be said to have impacted positively on the advertising practice and the relationship between practitioners and their trade partners in the last five years. While ASCOMDI has been able, for the first time, to put figures to what was owed and who was owed, ASP has raised the bar in the area of sanitisation and standard upgrading of the industry.
Its past record notwithstanding, ASP’s integrity came under serious questioning recently when it wielded the big stick by sanctioning Guinness Nigeria Plc; a player many thought ranked among the untouchables. The decision didn’t only jolt the integrated marketing communications industry but quickly became a subject of discourse among analysts and practitioners.
But at a media briefing organised by APCON recently to clear the air over the negative perception that trailed the development, its Registrar/Chief Executive, Alhaji Garba Bello Kankarofi, said the panel was not out to destroy any individual or organisation.
He also stated that ASP, in performance of the statutory mandate and its vetting function, usually briefs the governing council of APCON of its findings and recommendation. With this submission, the registrar has simply established that ASP didn’t act in isolation.
According to him; “APCON Council basically takes its decisions on the basis of such information and recommendations as was done in case of Guinness Plc, a key player in the alcoholic beverages industry in Nigeria. It must be stated at this juncture that APCON performs its regulatory role having regard to laws establishing it and as such extends no favouritism to anybody so as to ensure fair play in the industry.”
The council registrar also stated that following various instances of breach of the provision of the code of advertising by Guinness Plc, APCON, on the recommendation of the ASP, did suspend approval of previously approved certificates for alcoholic beverage advertising for Guinness. He however quickly added that his council recently restored same upon the recommendation of ASP as to compliance with the law.
APCON, through the panel, sentenced Guinness to a prohibition of all advertisements of its alcoholic beverages for violation of advertising statutes in Nigeria. According to the committee, the move was taken to stop “impunity and disregard of the law” irrespective of the standing or size of the personae involved.
On the surface, this move ought to be applauded by all stakeholders in the advertising business in Nigeria. After all, it is a commonly upheld paradigm that government should be of laws not of persons. Apostles of best practices and due process argue that what each country needs to make progress in the present dispensation is strong processes not strong personae.
This single postulation endorses the action of APCON which it highlighted in a statement credited to Kankarofi, claiming that failure to deliver this verdict against Guinness would have been tantamount to folding its arms while the law is violated and defenseless Nigerians like the aged and minor, generally regarded as vulnerable in advertising, are taken undue advantage of.
Observers believe that it sounds logical that APCON should move to ensure that all parties play according the rules of the game not matter how highly placed. They also agree that it is also imperative that the regulator should protect the vulnerable from mindless entrepreneurs who would stop at nothing to penetrate and dominate the minds of vulnerable Nigerians with a view to influencing their purchase decisions, even if it is personally detrimental to their wellbeing.
Under this circumstance, the ASP has the same status as a Federal High Court in Nigeria and its sentences can only be reviewed by a properly constituted Court of Appeal. But a few analysts have reasoned since the issue first reared its ugly head that this places a high duty of responsibility and calls for caution to avert judicial recklessness.
This conclusion became necessary because judicial sentences are not only generally regarded as wise and carefully arrived at, but are expected to be fair to all parties. This reinforces the general position in legal parlance that “he that comes to equity must come with clean hands.”
To people who are sympathetic to Guinness’ cause, the judgment was considered to be too harsh and autocratic because it required Guinness to comply “forthwith” – in a manner reminiscent of military regimes that Nigerians are working hard to consign to the dustbin of history.
A public affair analyst, Mr. Chris Abakare, who shares the above position, said: “The whole issue would not have caught my attention except that it reminds me that marketing is war. In war, as is common knowledge fair is foul and foul is fair. With this order, the winners are Guinness’ direct competitors in the alcoholic beverage segment.”
Speaking further, he stated; “Given our peculiar environment one is left wondering, ‘could this decision have been influenced by external factors?’ It is the business of every entrepreneur to strike its opponent or competitor at its weakest point. One would have been tempted to think that Guinness’ biggest rival in the market, Nigerian Breweries Plc has a hand in the misfortune that has befallen their greatest competitor but for concrete evidence,” Abakare said.
Between Guinness and NB
Given the circumstances that surrounded the issue, pundits believe that it is clear that whatever offences Guinness might have been guilty of, Nigerian Breweries, at least in the ordinary person’s eye is equally, if not much more guilty than Guinness.
Clement Akinwumi, a teacher and football enthusiast, said; “As an ardent follower of football, particularly the European games, I am left wondering where APCON and its ASP normally travel to each time these games are beamed on the tube.”
To Akinwumi and people who share his thought, the two brands seem to have taken their rivalry to the sponsorship of European football and irrespective of the time of the day the games come live on television, Guinness and Nigerian Breweries ‘dance naked’ before viewers, not minding Article 39 of the Nigerian Advertising Code of Practice and Sales Promotion that provides that; “advertisements for alcoholic beverages shall not be aired between 6am and 8pm on radio; and 6am and 10pm on television.”
“In the drive to reach the large audience attracted to the European game, these brands violate the law while the regulators play the spectator or seem to, at least until now. The European Champions’ League, which features advertisement by Heineken, one of Nigeria Breweries’ leading brands, has annually been a regular feature on DSTV from 8pm – two hours before the advertising watershed for alcoholic products. This year is not an exception as only last month, at least four Champion League matches carried alcohol advertising by Nigeria Breweries between 8pm and 10pm without any eyebrow being raised by either ASP or APCON.
“With the turn of things, I would have been tempted to conclude that APCON has woken up to its responsibilities but to imagine that judgment is selective leaves much to be desired. If this is the offence of Guinness, Nigerians are fully aware that Nigerian Breweries are equally guilty. So why is Nigerian Breweries not being sanctioned or called to question?”, he wondered.
But a lawyer, Tajudeen Adeyemi, has dismissed those he called ‘Guinness spokespersons’ as people who are ignorant of the law.
“Much as I will not attempt to absolve Nigerian Breweries of being guilty of the same offence or not, I think it is wrong for a few people to try to rubbish the whole thing, simply because they feel Guinness is not the only offender. At a time like this, the first thing is to ask ourselves if the panel was right or not,” he said.
Meanwhile, many people are asking whether there is equity in APCON and advertising practice in Nigeria or not. Some practitioners have started calling on stakeholders to challenge what they describe as selective justice of APCON, arguing that it might be the turn of Guinness today but another organisation tomorrow.
“It is clear that Nigerian Breweries, being Guinness’ most direct rival, can only exploit advertisement regulatory standards as a tool for marketing warfare. Although neither ASP nor APCON has confirmed that this was its intention in sanctioning Guinness and publishing the decision in the media, a well informed and industry minded regulator should have factored this into reaching its verdict,” Abakare further stated.
As concerned individuals are crying out that it is sad that at a time regulators like the Nigerian Communications Commission is calling dominant players like MTN and Globacom to order in the bid to protect the competition, the raging question is whether APCON or the ASP chairman; Mr. Ade Akinde, has taken side or not in the issue.