By Amechi Obiakpu
Recently, Sterling Bank, one of Nigeria’s commercial banks, aired an advert which provoked the ire of many Nigerians, especially people of the Christian faith.
The message, aimed at commemorating with Christians on the Easter occasion, compared the resurrection of Christ with Agege bread. Unfortunately, many people found it distasteful. As a result, the Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria (APCON), the body responsible for regulating advertising practice in Nigeria, threatened to take necessary actions against Sterling Bank.
APCON said, in a statement, that it found the message insensitive and provocative; hence, it took the decision to sanction the bank.
The statement, signed by Dr. Olalekan Fadolapo, Registrar/Chief Executive of APCON, reads: “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 Standard 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 therefore noted that, it 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.
Sterling Bank, in another message, called for forgiveness over the message which it described as error, but that was not enough to assuage the anger of the regulatory body.
The Advertising Standard Panel (ASP), is a statutory committee of APCON charged with the responsibility of vetting and approving every material before exposure.
It also ensures that every advertisement conforms to the prevailing laws of the federation as well as the code of ethics of the advertising profession.
The committee ensures that only decent, honest, and truthful advertisements are carried in the media.
According to the APCON Law and ASP’s mandate, practitioners are required to submit their advertisements for approval and obtain certificate of clearance before exposing such advertisements to the public.
In fact, Dr. Fadolapo posited, in one of his interviews, that he believes the pre-exposure or vetting of advert was the reason APCON was set up. “Advertising is vetted or controlled at two points- it is either the pre or post. APCON is the only government agency by law that has the pre-exposure right although the law of other government agency is being encroached upon as in advertising law by some other agencies meaning that some people want to play that role but APCON is the government agency with universal power on advertising. Other government agency like NBC has post exposure right. Post exposure right to the extent that if you push any material out that they see that it contradicts certain rules they come for it,” he said.
In understanding the basic principles of advertising, APCON in its website states that, “All advertisements shall be legal, decent, honest, truthful, respectful and mindful of Nigeria’s culture.
“They should be prepared with a high sense of social responsibility and should avoid misinformation.
“All advertisements should conform to the principles of fair competition generally accepted in business, and of fair comments expected in free human communication.
“The aim is to enhance public confidence in advertising and should always be in the interest of the consumer and wider society.
“All advertisements and sales promotions require pre-exposure vetting before publication/screening. Turn-around time for obtaining approval are eight hours, 16 hours, 24 hours, 48hours and 2 weeks respectively (conditions apply). It is a sanctionable offence to cause to be aired or published in the print, advertisements which have not been approved by the ASP.”
To appreciate the statutory role APCON plays as the regulatory authority in the advertising profession, one may need to understand powers behind its creation.
APCON was established by the Advertising Practitioners Act No. 55 of 1988, as amended by Act No. 93 of 1992 and Act No. 116 of 1993 (now Advertising Practitioners Registration Act Cap A7 of 2004).
The regulatory agency has the mandate to promote responsible and ethical advertising practice, acting as the conscience of society and watchdog for the consumers; whilst managing the needs and interests of the stakeholders in Nigeria’s Advertising Industry.
Noting this, the role of the ASP as a unit of APCON in ensuring that every material for public consumption conforms within the highest ethical standard at least as it concerns the country, cannot be overemphasized. industry watchers believe that the existence of pre-exposure law has brought some level of sanctity into the country’s advertising space.
Some of them noted that beyond the law, given the country’s religious belief, it is only natural for people to react when certain issues touch on their faith. Hence, should advertisers fail to observe some of these ethical standards, it is then behoove on the authority to check it.
Daniel Ayo Coker, a copywriter and former staff with Promoserve Advertising, noted that any material that touches on religious sensibilities should be discarded.
“I once worked at Promoserve Advertising as a copywriter. We had a client who made/distributed safes. I worked on the account and one of my drafts included ‘only God provides better security.’ My Director at the time, Omowunmi Alli, was supportive but not too excited about it. My MD was livid that I was writing copy that had references to God. I definitely was not expecting the reaction. But that copy never made it past draft. When I spoke with some of my colleagues at Insight and other agencies, they confirmed that the reaction would probably be the same at their agencies. Apparently, things have since changed. Not only are advertising agents referencing God, but they are actually comparing God to Agege bread. I wonder what the conversation is like right now in the agency that produced that ad for Sterling Ban,” he wrote on his Facebook wall while reacting to the issue of unethical advertising practice.
On his part, Ifedayo Daramola (1999) stated, “Our country, Nigeria is more of a capitalist state and everyone in his kind of business wants to maximize profit. By way of negligence of the ethical standards, some advertisers, regardless of the decency, truthfulness and social values which advertising upholds stick to unethical advertising practice, thus, causing loss of lives, discomfort, and dissatisfaction to the consumers of some goods and services. A number of advertisements carried by Nigerian newspapers, radio and television are illegal and libelous; while some contain malice.”
The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) condemned the action of the bank, even as it called for the removal of the Chief Executive of Sterling Bank, Abubakar Suleiman.
“In case the management of Sterling Bank is not aware, the resurrection of Jesus witnesses the immense power of God Himself. To believe in the resurrection is to believe in God. If God exists, and if He created the universe and has power over it, then He has power to raise the dead,” CAN said.
However, a Media and Advertising lawyer, Nosakhare Uwadiae Esq., posited that, the Sterling Bank sanction is a litmus test for APCON and the new Industry Standard of Operation (AISOP) bill.
He noted that the unvetted Easter message by Sterling Bank perhaps has shown that APCON must continuously engage stakeholders on all of its policies and take a stand against those who flout them, especially with the introduction of the AISOP bill.
For Uwadiae, APCON needs to be more proactive even as he commended the body over its planned sanction of the bank.
“I am of the opinion that though this action by APCON is commendable, APCON style generally is reactive and not proactive.”
Continuing he said: “APCON needs to be more proactive. For example, since the new AISOP regulations came out, how many Stakeholders Parliament has APCON held specifically to dialogue on progress on enforcement of AISOP?
“To show; who has complied, reason for non-compliance, how to Increase compliance more and engagement on AISOP.
“It is over six months since AISOP came into being and there is no formal report to the industry on compliance and penalties for non-compliance.
“Can this Sterling Bank (advertiser) be used as a case study to further ensure compliance with AISOP?” He queried.
He stated further: “Which of the articles in AISOP are receiving more levels of compliance and why? Is there a compliance unit in APCON?”
According to Uwadiae, high levels of compliance with AISOP will lower levels of non-compliance with APCON regulations on contents of advert.
“For example, one of the articles clearly stated that all stakeholders must comply with the copyrights laws in Nigeria. How many of us have deliberately complied with that? Beyond wielding the big stick, APCON should use this Sterling Bank case to push compliance to AISOP and general advertising regulation such that it raises compliance level astronomically,” he said, adding that, “Lest AISOP becomes a paper Tiger.”
He therefore charged APCON to use this case to drive home the bigger picture, not just react to the advert.