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Cell C is ‘astroturfing.’ What a joke!

Astroturf is stuff that looks like grass but isn’t. Cell C has been astroturfing.
In case you missed it, here’s how it happened. Cell C staged a stunt. They uploaded a video onto YouTube of a Trevor Noah performance ripping all the mobile service providers to pieces. Then they wrote a letter of apology to him, which was published in the Sunday Times last weekend.

This was followed by a press conference, where Cell C announced that it was all just a stunt and that actually Trevor Noah was their new customer experience officer. I suppose that it’s fitting, appointing a comedian to make sure that we all know exactly what to expect from their customer service.

In the social media world astroturfing is just about the worst crime you can commit. Do not play your customers as fools. Ever. Even if Cell C had not come clean they would have been found out eventually.

So why do I think this is so bad?

Here’s why:
1. Because it was simply untrue. Why would I or any other customers trust a word that Cell C says from now on? They have nailed their colours to the mast.
2. If Mr Noah was part of this subterfuge, then it’s pretty hard to find a reason to trust him either.
3. It absolutely destroys me to think that the Cell C CEO Lars Reichelt could call his business customer-centric. That phrase implies that you put your customer first.

I humbly apologise to my readers, I was taken as a fool when I called their apology a masterstroke. I would have expected an “Honest Joe’s Used Cars” business to do something like this –- but a serious business that cares about its brand? Never.

Well done, Cell C. You fooled me – but I think you will find that in the end, the joke is on you.

What do you think of this stunt? Comment on the article and let’s find out.

Read the original Memeburn article: Cell C responds to Facebook, YouTube jibes with full page newspaper ad

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  • I am not to sure if we are angry, because we got fooled or because it was really harmful. Some say any press is better than no press. If Cell C comes out with better service and keep to their new ideals, will we actually remember this ad?

    The point is, they wanted our attention. They got it. Now how they go forward and utilise this attention will determine the success, not the ad itself. Customers are not as “principled” as we would like to believe, otherwise a lot of “evil” brands would have disappeared.

  • Sarveshen Govender

    Sadly at the back of our minds, we all had some notion that this was too good to be true. Trevor Noah so happens to complain and Cell C just so happens to run an ad, in 2/3 days nogal, as a response then all of a sudden he is made some experience officer. This never happens and it's naive for us to have assumed that some of these big companies in SA are so on the ball so to speak. Firstly, whatis he going to do that their call centre hasn't been trained to do all this time (and this is one man against a team trained to handle customers). Secondly, instead of trying to put a well known to their service department, why not focus on fixing their issues. It's basically putting a plaster on a wound when you actually need a stitches (stupid analogy but it's fitting :P)

  • H Zeke


  • Cell C admitting this was a stunt was like a magician revealing the secrets of his illusions after his show – it totally ruins the “Wow!” experience and makes the audience feel stupid.

    Why not keep it a secret? It's not as if we're naive to believe that everything is true in advertising…

    Let's admit that it was pretty darn clever – you even said so in your previous post Walter.

    Trevor's Youtube video is hilarious, true and really does take a jab at Cell C. I'm pretty sure that this was part of his normal set, not something specifically written for this campaign (although, who knows?).

    I certainly wouldn't blame Trevor. Look, as a professional in the entertainment industry, if you're approached by a potential client who wishes to make you a representative of his company, you agree as long as certain criteria are met. Trevor almost certainly agreed with the intention behind the campaign – let's face it, his jabs were certainly on target – and who wouldn't be proud of being a representative of angry/frustrated customers who are demanding better service? He's a hired face, not all that dissimilar from the actors we see in commercials 'happily' using a product.

    Am I surprised that this was an orchestrated campaign? Not at all.

    Disappointed? Meh – it was clever and funny.

    Does this make an iota of difference in the service we'll experience from Cell C? I hope so, but we'll find out, won't we?

    Don't take it so hard Walter :) Heck, it's a better campaign than 99% of the advertising out there.

  • Adam

    When I first saw Cell C's whole approach with their letter in the Sunday Times, I thought it was quite cool because there was finally a company that started recognizing and using the way modern people communicate (ie online and social networking), but thought it was pretty transparent. To me it just seemed like a way to make a noise and attract eye balls but I did think they deserved a bit of credit for trying to do it in a new way…

    Now that it's come out I think that the whole thing was pretty pathetic…I know social media is the new big thing but there will be very few brands that will ever be able to use it going forward…which is a pity…

  • Regdesign

    The agency behind this (small a) should feel pretty dirty reading this article and rightly so. Seriously bad strategy in my opinion. When are agencies going to realise that the public isn't as gullible as they like to think they are ?

  • Anthony

    Totally agreed. Who came up with this rubbish idea ? I'm with CellC and i feel like switching. Own up whoever you are.

  • Sarveshen Govender

    have you guys seen the agencies (http://www.trigger.co.za) website they've done for the campaign, telltrevor.co.za – it's just a platform to sell cell c. sigh. I guess this is what Cell C wanted, publicity.

  • The public is that gullible. You only have to look at how happy everyone is on television commercials for proof :)

  • I believe that consumers are really tired of this kind of “marketing” behaviour. We long for a world where companies we do business with are authentic and transparent. Sorry this stunt comes nowhere near meeting that need. I think we have another classic example here of a brand that just doesn't get it. Maybe they should rather focus their creativity in engaging the real people who have serious issues with their customer care. On twitter the positive to negative mentions of this brand is a shocking 2:1. Sorry this was is a brand fail.

  • At least Cell C is helping to write the handbook about “How not to use Social Media”. Future students will benefit from their amateurish endeavour

  • Cell C, you're dead to me.

  • Pawel

    You're spot on about people's gullibility Marcel. They screwed up royally in terms of the segment they're hoping to capture with their 21Mbps next-gen network. However, they're liable to capture a larger market of the less technologically inclined. My thoughts here http://bit.ly/be4Imj

  • Think about it – You build your whole new relationship with your customer with “a lie” – come on think of romantic relationships – what chance do they have if they start like that. Why should we think of the relationship with a brand to be any different than the relationship with a person

    I didn't realise that the agency was Trigger – wow, I always thought them pretty smart. Sorry guys this wasn't your best work.

    I used this in my talk at the internet show – I will still keep it in my presso – for a different reason.

  • Secretly I am pleased – Wonderful material.

  • mysticd

    Actually – I'm quite impressed. To be honest, I initially found the apology a bit lame and corporate, which is what i'd expect from a mobile operator, although i was impressed that they did it at all. The fact that they staged the whole thing means a few things:

    1. They have a sense of humour
    2. They might actually deliver on what they promised, in that they're not just responding in terms of PR – but are are making the first move.

    Or maybe that's just what they want me to think. Geesh these 'shutter island' type movies are getting to me..


    People take things too seriously… Well done Cell C!

  • D0dja

    Quite frankly even if it wasn't astroturfing (i.e. if Trevor Noah was not a paid shill (hope your reputation as an artist was worth it Trevor, ho ho ho how they all laughed)) it was a bad idea anyway to run that advert.

    Your brand already has credibility problems around double-talk and unkept promises (4G network, 21Mbps, underdog that's there for the consumer, etc etc) and then you go say in 40 point type in the country's biggest broadsheet “YES! YOU WERE ALL RIGHT! WE _DO_ SUCK!”

    Being “honest” that you accept you have a problem and will do something about it may hold water for consumers — IF you're not the same company that has repeatedly, and for years, promised customers you would become anything other than a marginal, cheap (and nasty) third fiddle to the Big Two.

    Methinks this campaign is a product of too much cleverness in the boardroom, too much coffee, and too much ad agency powder. Say hi to hubris, for me, guys.

  • Lars P Reichelt

    Wait and see.

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  • Black Lily

    Personally I believe this campaign has been an epic fail, and I suppose only time will tell if this prediction is true. It was complete brand erosion… myself as an MTN user was never aware of the issues at Cell C until they ran this campaign – I now more than ever believe I will never be a Cell C user because it must be so horrifically bad that the company is using cheap marketing tactics to just retain their current customer base while warning the other market share consumers to stay FAR AWAY.

    I don't see evidence in how the re-branding of the company will in anyway increase their market share – which is essentially their objective. As for the Trevor Noah factor… well, not the smartest move from his side either, as comedians you are in the business of “cool” and “independent” which is now inevitable null-and-void based on his brand association with Cell C.

    My advise to the Cell C management would be to rather focus at being at the forefront of industry trends, which is tapping into the smart phone segment.. i.e: iphone and blackberry. Having not developed these offerings on their network has in my opinion crippled their growth. It's just a suggestion, suppose I should “Just tell Trevor” (highly unlikely).

    Thanks for the great Blog.

  • When I started drafting my blog post on this it was in celebration of a South African company getting it so right in terms of online engagement. Fortunately, unlike you guys, I got delayed in posting, and had my blushes spared. Oh my what a difference a few days makes to a story. http://bit.ly/cnWrPJ

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  • Actually it's NOT FUNNY to lie to your customers and the public.


  • Are all adevertising and marketing types pathological liars? I'm beginning to wonder

  • Got to be careful here. That could go either way.

    a) terrible to link sales to “engagement”
    b) or brilliant!

    Something people just aren't seeing in this space, is that for big business to SERIOUSLY adopt social media (and I mean beyond the pitter patter playing they're doing at the moment), it's going to have to be linked to ROI – or accepted as a “cost of servicing”.

    Social media is a pretty expensive cost of servicing – you can't just throw a call centre at it.

    Therefore… attempts to link it to sales are admirable. Positive experience on telltrevor.co.za leads to content exploration of offers leads to customer acquisition.

  • Perhaps it's a little more complicated than hurt feelings and astroturfing… Some thoughts:

    1. Cell C bought Noah's social graph. Very clever for them, instant penetration, ignoring the “transparency” issues. Maybe not so great for Noah who will end up with a mish mash “fan” base of cell c complainers/advocates and people who actually like him as a comedian.

    2. all this doomsday buzz will fizzle into nothing if they ACTUALLY deliver on their promise. I saw Lars, Cell C CEO commenting on a complaint posted to telltrevor.co.za promising a fix to a solution on Wednesday. That's ballsy, and if they deliver, project will succeed.

    3. The bigger debate I reckon is around their main brand web property (cellc.co.za) and their engagement hub (telltrevor.co.za). Jury's out. Either it was a brilliant call to link the two so closely (design is identical) or a lesson will be learnt on keeping dirty laundry as far away from your main brand as possible.

    we can go on and on about transparency and authenticity till the cows come home – if they've opened a channel for customers to talk to them, and they talk back and fix the BASE problem – they'll succeed.

  • I definitely agree – it has been very hard to monetize social media efforts (whichever platform being used) without it being seen as a product/service sell. You can't deny that this campaign was a gambit and Cell C should be applauded for trying and however this turns out, we've all learned a lesson. As for Cell C – let's hope this works in their favour but yeh, if this campaign helps solve issues and create a better customer experience then great. I guess it was just a little sneaky in how it all played out.Thanks though Andy for replying to comment :)

  • Black Lily

    Andy, I would disagree with your first point, from what I have seen and heard on social networks Trevor Noah's “Social Graph” will decrease due this this, having been labeled a sell out – how is that clever for either brand both Cell C and Noah?

    Recent Tweet: Seems like @Trevornoah traded for more 0's on his annual paycheck for less 0's on his fan base. Big Q is, is such a trade worth it? #CellC

    I believe the marketing stunt would have been more successful had they had a longer “pre” roll out strategy. It was highly unlikely that Trevor says something, and 3 days later he is “CEO”… there was no suspension of disbelief. They only undermined the intelligence of nimble-footed consumers. Lets not forget this started as a viral campaign, social consumers are far from clueless when it comes to cheap tactics.

    I do however wait in anticipation to see how this campaign effects the Bottom-Line.

  • @Black Lily (cool name)

    a) agree with the tweet. prob not long term effective for brand Noah, having this mish mash of cell c customers and actual fans of his comedy together. But fairly clever from Cell C. With this move, they now have one of the biggest social media “reaches” in SA (yes yes, and the whole lead up was pathetically done and contrived to the max, no arguments there). But show me another company with 120,000 reach in the social space? There can't be many. Let's watch the numbers and see!

    Amen on the bottom line. If they fulfil on this, get happier customers and make sales – well then we're all just getting our short term negative panties in a bunch, aren't we? :)

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