A Cairo-based advertising agency has come under heavy fire for a video suggesting that one of its advertising campaigns contributed to the occurrence of the Egyptian revolution. The video, which has been circulated online, refers to a campaign created by advertising agency JWT for telecom giant Vodafone Egypt prior to the revolution.
The JWT agency won an award on Wednesday night at the MENA Cristal Awards for a brand campaign it created for Vodafone Egypt. The glossy centerpiece film that launched the campaign in January of this year features veteran Egyptian actor Adel Imam describing the “power of 80 million people” against scenes of ordinary Egyptians in everyday life.
The campaign’s tagline “the power between your hands” was lent an uncomfortable irony on 28 January, 2011 when Vodafone, together with Egypt’s two other mobile phone operators Mobinil and Etisalat, cut mobile and internet services as Egyptian authorities desperately tried to undermine the massive street protests that broke out on Friday’s “Day of Anger”.
Egyptians were almost completely cut off from the outside world as mobile phone, SMS and net services were stopped. Former President Hosni Mubarak, former Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif and former Interior Minister Habib al-Adly were last week fined US$90 million by a civil court for their role in the blackout.
Now, JWT have unwittingly re-ignited the anger some mobile phone customers harbour against telephone companies via a video that appeared online yesterday.
The video – which JWT CEO Amal al-Masry emphasised to Al-Masry Al-Youm is for strictly internal company purposes as a “case study” and not meant for public viewing – opens with the words, “For 30 years, Egyptians have felt powerless. On 1 January, 2011 Vodafone launches 'power to you' in Egypt.”
It goes on to explain that the idea behind the campaign “was to inspire and remind Egyptians that everyone has power.”
JWT then says that after the advert was aired, “social media took over.”
“Three days later, 100,000 hits and over 500,000 fans on Facebook… Three weeks later, 25 January, 2011.”
After showing iconic scenes of the Tahrir Square protest, to the sound of soaring violins and a voice announcing Mubarak’s resignation, JWT says, “We did not send people to the streets. We did not start the revolution. We only reminded Egyptians how powerful they are.”
The video ends with a quote from Wael Ghonim, the administrator of the influential "We are all Khaled Saeed" Facebook page, in which he says that the Vodafone advert is “Inspiring… It talks about a generation able to change their country.”
Ghonim on Thursday tweeted a condemnation of the video, saying, "It gives the credit to Vodafone for the revolution! And they used my name/posts without permission!"
The response from social media users has been furious, and since the video was misunderstood by many as an advert, most of the anger has been directed against Vodafone.
One commentator on Youtube writes, “Are you guys seriously planning on leeching something out of this after you cut the phones and internet… after protestors who were being shot at could not call others and warn them about being shot at by snipers because of you? SHAME!”
JWT CEO Amal al-Masry rejected accusations that the implicit claim of the video – that the Vodafone advertising campaign contributed to the occurrence of the revolution – was crass and insulting.
Masry said that the video was about “understanding the aspirations of your customers” and that JWT “are very upset” by the reaction. She added that the unauthorized publication online of the video “infringes on our intellectual property rights.”
In a statement, Vodafone Egypt said that it “does not have any connection to this video and had no prior knowledge of its production or posting on the Internet.”
Vodafone CEO Hatem Dowidar added that Vodafone Egypt “is part of a global company that has strict policies refraining [sic] associating the brand name with any political or religious affairs of any country in which it operates”.
In a statement issued on Saturday, 29 January 2011 Vodafone defended its decision to cut services.
“We would like to make it clear that the authorities in Egypt have the technical capability to close our network, and if they had done so it would have taken much longer to restore services to our customers,” a statement posted on its website reads.
“It has been clear to us that there were no legal or practical options open to Vodafone… but to comply with the demands of the authorities.”
The defence has rung hollow with many users who regard Vodafone and other mobile companies as being complicit with the authorities.
“Vodafone could have ignored the order to shut down services,” said Ramy Raoof, an activist and online media officer with NGO the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
“If they really wanted to take our side and help us, they could have ignored the order and let the authorities cut off services themselves. If all three mobile operators had taken the same position and stood up to the government, it may not have taken the decision to cut off services itself.”
According to Raoof, Vodafone and other companies will in any case receive compensation for loss of profits during the period when the authorities ordered that services be cut. However, customers have yet to be compensated for the interruption to services.
Raoof was one of six activists who had their phone lines cut off on 25 January, the first day of protests throughout Egypt, and who were part of a group offering legal and medical support to protestors, publishing their phone numbers online.
“Vodafone and other mobile companies cut the lines off before major protests began on 28 January. They were in collusion with the authorities from the start,” Raoof said, adding that his phone line was only restored on 2 June, over four months later, after he threatened legal action.
In Feburary 2009, Vodafone’s head of global standards Annie Mullins said during an e-forum held in London that the company had to hand over information about customers to security bodies during “food riots” in Egypt in March 2008 – a claim denied by Vodafone Egypt.