Information & Communication Technology

The Good, The Ad, and the Ugly: How not to prepare ad campaigns on human rights and business

06 June 2011

By Salil Tripathi, Senior Advisor, Global Issues, IHRB

Last week, a slickly-made video began to circulate on the Internet, apparently produced by the advertising company JWT for its client Vodafone.

During its apartheid years, the South African Government imposed several laws, including the Group Areas Act, which segregated populations by race, and required people to carry a pass which identified them by race. Companies provided the technology to mass- produce the passes.

Now imagine if such companies made a television advertisement in 1994, the year South Africa held its first non-racial elections in which they claimed that their passes celebrated South Africa’s multicultural identity, making people become aware of who they were and empowered them to fight racial segregation, ultimately leading to the dismantling of apartheid in the elections held that year.

Wisely, they didn’t do that. Such an advertisement would have made sense only in a parallel, Orwellian universe. And yet, reality is stranger than imagination.

Last week a slickly-made video began to circulate on the Internet, apparently produced by the advertising company JWT for its client Vodafone. The video shows Egyptians connecting with each other, feeling empowered, and joining the protests that led to the fall of the Hosni Mubarak regime.

While the video makes no claims for starting the revolution, it drops broad hints as it tries to ride on its coattails, that it played some role. The ad clip has been widely ridiculed. Vodafone’s competitor Mobinil, too, tried to link itself with the revolution – after Mubarak’s fall, it launched a campaign at the Cairo airport with billboards featuring a Barack Obama statement praising the revolution, with a Mobinil logo on the billboards.

The role telecommunications companies did play in Egypt’s revolution hardly advanced human rights: in fact, their actions made many more vulnerable. The companies switched off mobile communications in response to demands from the Mubarak regime, and, under duress, transmitted pro-regime and anti- demonstrator text messages to Mubarak loyalists, many of whom went to Tahrir Square and attacked those calling for change.

Those actions placed the telecommunications companies on the wrong side of history. Since then, an unusual Egyptian court decision exonerating the companies and in fact compensating them, has raised a furor in Egypt – particularly because, as reports now suggest, Egyptian authorities had planned such a shutdown in 2008 – meaning, the actions taken earlier this year were far from sudden, and operating companies were apparently aware of such an eventuality.

Vodafone has issued a strong statement that it did not authorise the video, and it is no longer available on JWT’s website. Its spokesperson further told the Guardian: "We have not used any images of the Egyptian revolution at any time in any of our external promotional material. Any suggestions to the contrary are incorrect."

Indeed, the video now available makes no claims regarding the revolution. But the slightly longer, and undoubtedly controversial video can still be found on other websites, and given its professional, sophisticated production quality it seems unlikely to be a prank. The ad also features Adel Emam, a popular Egyptian actor (who apparently was a Mubarak supporter but switched sides when the tide turned): so it would seem someone at the company, or at the advertising agency, would have known that such a video was being made. If the advertisement was clearly an in-house exercise for learning, as is now being implied, then the companies should say so clearly, because there is much that both companies need to learn about what happened in Egypt early this year and their role.

There is already speculation of a potential lawsuit against Vodafone and Mobinil in the United States under the Alien Tort Claims Act, which would seek damages from the telecom companies for their role in assisting the Egyptian crackdown. The track record of such tort litigation suggests out of court settlements are likely, without admission of wrongdoing. Winning such cases is not easy. But the complaint is taken seriously.

How did it come to such a pass? First, consider for a moment the role of the two companies involved. When Vodafone was accused of exposing itself to being complicit in the crackdown, its first response was that it had no choice; it had to follow orders under Egypt’s emergency laws. Then, along with other companies, when it sent messages deemed inflammatory on behalf of the government, it said it did so under duress. Human rights groups, including the Institute for Human Rights and Business, criticised these actions. The response was that they were only following orders, and there was no alternative.

In response to such criticism, Martin Sorrell, the chief executive of the WPP group, which owns JWT, wrote an article in the Times newspaper (subscription required) in which he defended Vodafone and other companies (but did not disclose his firm’s relationship with Vodafone), saying that such companies should not be forced to take major human rights decisions. Indeed, he implied that companies like Google and Twitter may actually create problems for other companies, because by aiding human rights activists, they were taking responsibility for human rights – a responsibility they did not have.

In a narrow sense, Sorrell was right – but from the broad perspective of compliance with international human rights laws, he wasn’t. As the new Guiding Principles put forward by John Ruggie, UN Special Representative for Business and Human Rights, have shown through the UN endorsed Protect-Respect-Remedy framework, companies have the responsibility to respect human rights, and that means not being complicit in illegal actions of others.

Our recently published report, From Red to Green Flags, shows the kind of enhanced due diligence companies should follow, to ensure they respect human rights in high-risk areas. That report builds on the Red Flags Initiative which lays down legal risks companies face while operating in high-risk zones. Efforts such as the Global Network Initiative developed by companies and the civil society, to develop a set of principles to respect human rights relating to freedom of expression and privacy on the Internet are also of critical importance.

Too many companies are being placed in positions where they have to take critical decisions concerning human rights without adequate awareness or exposure to real life dilemmas, and too often operate without a proper framework guiding them. What complicates the matter further is that companies new to the business and human rights discourse continue to see this area simply as part of their corporate social responsibility efforts, or public relations exercise. They depend on often well-meaning public affairs spokespeople, external relations specialists, diplomats, and public relations professionals to manage the critical fall-out and 'image problems' caused during a human rights crisis.

But respect for human rights is not only about corporate social responsibility. It is far more important than that. Nor is it about image management. It is a serious business.

Riding on the coattails of a revolution doesn’t burnish a company’s image – particularly when its role has been criticized severely by the Egyptian people. When a company goes abroad to do business, its aim is not to advance human rights; it goes to earn profit – and that’s fine. But in so doing, it must comply with the law and avoid its own abuses while ensuring that it is not complicit in human rights violations committed by others. And it should never claim credit for the achievements of others.

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