– 5 June 2013

Cellphone companies in SA are waging war with each other. What was a de facto monopoly has been challenged by upstart Cell-C, driven by former Vodacom boss Alan Knott-Craig Snr. Cell-C threw down the gauntlet in an apparent price war by offering cheaper data bundles and introducing the concept of discounting rates on same-network calls. Cell-C’s latest campaign is being flighted with numbing regularity on SABC and e-TV, promoting the concept of switching networks, while keeping your number.

Cell-C’s Knott-Craig has set himself up as the consumer champion, taking on ICASA to get the industry regulator to lower termination rates – in other words, the fees that mobile operators pay to carry each other’s calls on their networks.

The new battleground, as smart phones become more pervasive, is data. Every iPhone or iPad owner knows that all that browsing, chatting, downloading and photo-sharing chews up your data allocation like nothing else can, so data is becoming an even bigger component of the mobile phone bill than talk. In response to Knott-Craig’s salvo, MTN and Vodacom have hit back hard at Cell-C with a dizzying array of deals of their own.

Whatever way you look at it, this competition is good for the customer. There’s more choice and better value is offered in the fight for errolsubscribers and cellular supremacy. For too long the big networks were suspected of colluding with one another and were regularly pulled before parliament for high prices and a lack of service. With Knott-Craig having dug in behind enemy lines, the industry, thankfully is now changing.

One of Vodacom’s unique claims is that it has better 3G coverage, and the Ad of the Week has not been flighted much despite the fact it was released 3 months ago, so I’m giving it a thumbs-up for humour and a clear message. It starts with a long-suffering character, Errol, who just wants to read his newspaper in peace. But his wife interrupts his idyll.

“What are you doing just sitting?” she asks. “The grass is this high. If you don’t mow that grass now…” But her nagging falls on deaf ears. Errol just gets up and leaves.

OK, so it’s a pretty stereotypical scenario, one might think, but there’s something about Errol’s face as he walks off, studiously ignoring his wife, that is quite charming. Your heart goes out to this poor guy, who just wants to relax and read the paper.

Unfortunately, even though he drives off to a remote restaurant, he can’t escape his wife, who video-calls him to nag him some more: “Errol! This grass is not going to cut itself…”

The music that covers the scene is an excerpt from ‘I will Follow Him’, a song made famous in 1963 by Little Peggy March, which then made its reappearance in the 1992 hit comedy, ‘Sister Act’.

The lyrics, “I will follow him / There isn’t an ocean too deep / A mountain so high, it can keep /Keep me away…” are poignantly ironic, as Errol tries to escape the wife from hell. Driven to desperation, Errol gets into a boat, crosses a lake and treks into the wilderness. But alas! his Vodacom reception is still too good: even in the middle of nowhere, the nagging wife’s face appears on his phone.

Voice-over: “With 50% more 3G Internet, you’ll be connected whenever, wherever you are, with Vodacom. Sorry Errol!” It’s a clever twist: the very thing that prevents Errol’s escape, is the benefit that Vodacom is promoting: being connected everywhere.

The ad was produced by Spitfire films for agency Ireland Davenport; executive creative director was John Davenport, agency producer was Yoli Mes and copywriter was Anthea Webber, with art direction credit going to Gina King. What’s really interesting about this ad is that it uses creativity to promote a product benefit, which is fairly smart for an industry that normally fails dismally in the way it communicates packages, product features, services and the like.

The casting is great – both husband and wife are archetypal – even the old Merc Errol drives is an extension of his personality. It’s an interesting cast, as they are in their 60s, which is not really the target market, nor the obvious age that one might have expected to be put in this situation. This is something that—for me—gives the ad some of its charm.

I know I’ve featured humorous ads a lot lately, but that’s because they’re the only ones that grab my attention. Perhaps it’s the economy, or the political climate, but it feels like we need things to cheer us up. Soap powders and cars and supermarkets that take themselves too seriously don’t cut it. And the fact that Vodacom’s so smart in communicating a benefit ordinary consumers (or tech luddites) could find a bit baffling gets a big round of applause from me.

Mobile brands have a lot of work to do to make their offerings more accessible and consumer friendly, so it is great to see that good thought has gone into this. Besides this week creativity has to triumph over mind numbing frequency – Cell-C might be reinventing the market but the current campaign is flighted so frequently and is so lacking in originality that it has become a viewing irritation. Thank goodness for the sweet relief brought by Vodacom’s ‘Errol’.