Wearing a purple polar fleece vest with a bright Ribena logo on the breast, John Sayers, Managing Director of GlaxoSmithKline Consumer Healthcare, is on our TVs this week telling us he’s sorry if we got the wrong impression about Ribena and its vitamin C content. But is the cosy corporate clobber designed to ward off the chill of a New Zealand blackcurrant farm, or the chilly reception that the ad appears to be getting from Australian consumers?
In March, GSK was fined NZ$217,500 in the Auckland District Court after it admitted to 15 breaches of the New Zealand Fair Trading Act in relation to advertising and labelling claims for Ribena ready-to-drink blackcurrant beverages. Pre-empting possible repercussions in Australia (the products and claims were the same here), GSK voluntarily reported to the ACCC last year that it may have misled consumers, and then made court-enforceable undertakings. One of these involved running corrective print and TV advertising, hence Sayers’ starring role.
Conventional wisdom about corporate apologies says that the CEO or MD should do the ad him/herself, taking full responsibility on behalf of the company. While this may be good in theory, the qualities that make for a good CEO don’t necessarily translate to on-screen presence. Unfortunately, there’s a very real risk that the CEO’s relative inexperience and discomfort in front of the camera will come across as uncertainty or insincerity, and his or her words – even if heartfelt – will be perceived by viewers as lacking conviction.
Furthermore, there are no points for originality and no Gold Lions at Cannes for creativity in this kind of advertising. Professional presenters know how hard it is to do a “walk and talk” – even veteran journos (think 60 Minutes) can make it look staged and clichéd. So who decided John Sayers should apologise to Australian consumers “on location”?
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The image most consumers will call to mind for a managing director is of a man, wearing a suit and tie (OK, a purple one if you like), in an office, behind a desk. Wouldn’t Sayers have been more comfortable – and hence more convincing – filmed on his “home turf”? Even a supermarket aisle – the actual location of the “battle” for consumers’ minds – might have been a more appropriate setting than the South Island of NZ.
Then there’s the script. When words seem cautiously chosen rather than natural and open, consumers are more likely to hear compliance rather than contrition as the marketer’s motivation.
Based on the anecdotal feedback I’m getting, issues to do with the “who” and “how” of advertising delivery certainly aren’t helping when consumers process the “what” – the content of the messages from GSK in the Ribena ad.
Mr Sayers tells us that “the testing method used to determine the level of Vitamin C was unreliable and we were unaware of this at the time”. GSK is a global pharmaceutical giant and the name behind trusted brands like Ventolin, Panadol, Gaviscon, Nicorette and Zovirax. As a maker of prescription and over-the-counter medicines, GSK has to satisfy rigorous compliance regimes – the US Food and Drug Administration, the European Medicines Agency and Australia’s own Therapeutic Goods Administration – to get its products registered for use.
Given the company’s vast resources and experience in that sort of scientific and regulatory environment, Australian consumers may well find it hard to believe that GSK could be undone by an “unreliable” test for vitamin C content. This claim seems especially bizarre in light of the fact that it was two 14-year-old New Zealand schoolgirls who found that ready-to-drink Ribena had no detectable vitamin C.
Secondly, GSK has admitted its claim that “blackcurrants in Ribena contain four times the Vitamin C of oranges” was incorrect and may have misled or confused consumers. I’m certainly confused – for a company that’s used to minding its Ps and Qs under very tight promotional codes of conduct, I’m amazed that no-one at GSK recognised and flagged their concern about this years ago.
There’s a fine line to be walked in a situation like this. The company has to be absolutely clear about the purpose of the ad: is it primarily to correct misleading impressions in the minds of consumers, to apologise to aggrieved consumers who feel they were misled, or to restore consumer confidence in the brand? Trying to do all three at once may not only be ambitious, but may also introduce significant conflicts in style and execution such that none of the objectives is met effectively.
Interestingly, GSK’s redress doesn’t end with the TV campaign and its accompanying website “Ribena: The Facts”. In a bizarre undertaking that sounds more appropriate for a teenager than a major corporation, GSK has promised the ACCCthat it will write an essay for the industry “on the importance of being accurate when making representations to consumers”. Presumably they will do this after school during detention.