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Why do you think I’m stupid, Cell C?

Dear Lars

I’m a Cell C customer. Well, not directly — I have a Virgin contract because I’m a commitmentphobe and at the time they were the only ones offering month-to-month — but I use your network. In fact, the words “Cell C E” probably mean more to me than any other brand I interact with, more than the Hyundai I drive or the Colgate Sensitive Pro-Relief toothpaste I use (disclaimer: Colgate is a client. But the toothpaste is still pretty good). Those words matter to me because, without them, I can’t download my mail, or tweet, or access Google maps to find out where the hell I am. I can’t download data at all, so the sight of the words “Cell C E” makes me very, very happy.

Pity I don’t get to see them that often.

So you can imagine my excitement when I saw your ad in the Sunday Times a week ago. You know, the full-page, full-colour ad addressing Trevor Noah the comedian — the dude with fantastic cheekbones and ethnically ambiguous credentials so essential in advertising in SA today — saying you’d seen his video and the Facebook page slating your brand and you were going to do something about the criticism, which, you acknowledged, was valid because you knew your service wasn’t that great.

Wow, I thought. Finally, a brand that was willing to engage with social media, that took us seriously enough to go out with a campaign brave enough to admit its failings. All that tweeting I’d done about “Words cannot express how much I hate Cell C” had finally paid off. I was especially excited because you talked about rolling out a 4G network, which would make a huge difference to someone who cannot tweet most of the time because the signal I get is so crap I can’t access the net. (Not being able to tweet is incredibly distressing for someone who spends as much time online as I do.)

Then there’s a press conference during which you announce that Trevor Noah is your new CEO, or Customer Experience Officer. Cool, I think. A lot of brands deal with their biggest critics by hiring them, and this makes strategic sense. Brands that have the balls to do this are brands I can respect. These days, honesty and authenticity count for a lot. And yes, what they say about enemies and tents is true.

Naturally, I looked at what Trevor had to say on

“So, how did I get to be CEO of Cell C?” he writes. “Well, it’s a bit of a story but here goes. A couple weeks ago I said some things about Cell C that Cell C weren’t too happy about. The truth hurts, what can I say? Take a look, you’ll see what I mean. What happened next was a bit of a whirlwind really. Basically, the CEO of Cell C, Lars Reichelt, decided to send me a letter … in the Sunday Times. Subtle. In it he talked about how they’re changing, how they’re building the best network in the Southern Hemisphere. How things really are going to be different. Yeah right.” etc etc blah blah fish paste.

Only, as it turns out, it wasn’t a whirlwind at all. Or subtle. Or the truth, for that matter. According to the bright sparks I follow on Twitter, who are pretty clued up when it comes to all things tech, the asktrevor url was registered back in June. Which means you’ve been planning this campaign for a while. Which also means that you uploaded that video, and you orchestrated a fake response to it. I know as well as anyone who works in this industry that it is not possible to crack and implement such a comprehensive through-the-line campaign in two weeks. Even six weeks would have been pushing it, what with agreeing on the brief, writing copy, making sure that all the right signatures were on the finalised artwork. I smelt the proverbial rat even before I started asking questions, and lo and behold, I was right. It’s all a giant PR exercise!

So, how do I feel now that I know the campaign isn’t a “whirlwind” (cringe)? Now that I know that Trevor has had a long-standing commercial relationship with Cell C; that it’s all part of a strategy, with LSMs and a campaign proposition and a rollout plan? I’ll tell you how I feel. I feel … conned. Yes, that’s the word. Conned, and not only that, fairly angry that you think I’m stupid enough to buy your bullshit artistry. It’s very slick-looking bullshit artistry, but it’s fake nonetheless, and the problem with fake is that it only works if the people it’s aimed at think it’s real.

(There’s no way you’d focus on digital unless you were aiming at the top end of the market, types who take out contracts, so I’m squarely in your target market.)

I’m not alone. People online cottoned on pretty quickly to what you were up to: essentially, the whole thing was planned, and the so-called response is fake. Here’s the thing with social media: you can’t fool the public. Somebody will check up on you, and they will find you out, and when they do, they will not be kind. If you’re not sure, you can read here, and here, or here.

Why didn’t you own up? Why have such an obviously fake blurb on a website that’s supposed to demonstrate the essence of what it is to be transparent? I would have forgiven you. Hey, it’s advertising. A little bit of exaggeration or game-playing is allowed; it’s even in the Code of Advertising Practice.

There’s a theory that there is no such thing as bad publicity and, in the words of Oscar Wilde, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. In that respect, this campaign has worked brilliantly. But all this buzz has come at a price: Cell C look like posers of the worst possible kind (I won’t even start on Trevor Noah, because this is about brands and not about individuals. Suffice to say that any credibility he might have had has been shot to pieces. If I ever see him on stage again I will personally chuck seasonally available organic fruit at him).

So yeah, I might ultimately be your customer (we schmucks with Virgin matter too). I’ll hang on a little longer to see whether you’ll actually deliver on your promises about 4G. But you’ve lied to me, and insulted me, and I will not forget that.


Sarah Britten
Cell C customer


  • During the day Sarah Britten is a communication strategist; by night she writes books and blog entries. And sometimes paints. With lipstick. It helps to have insomnia.


  1. Nick Nick 12 August 2010

    I work in marketing for an online company and have been following this “stranger-than-fiction” story for a while now. Plenty of flak has spewed Cell-C’s way, but I think one company has gotten off a little two lightly, that world-famous dinosaur of an ad agency – Ogilvy. Surely they cannot claim to have had nothing to do with this debacle? I too have been at the receiving end of their incompetence with a brainstorming meeting for which they didn’t even bother to find out who we were, what we did or what our website looked like before engaging us face-to-face. I think, while Cell-C was incredibly naive to expect the wisdom of social media communities to be subverted, their knowledgeable ad agency should bear more media blame than they have been receiving, after all, these are people who do this for a living, who are paid millions to handle such campaigns – how could they be so behind the times, so out of touch with the way the world of digital & social media currently works? It beggars belief.

  2. Donald Paul Donald Paul 12 August 2010

    And all so cringe-worthy, to boot.
    Thanks, Sarah. Always a good read.

  3. Joe Fine Joe Fine 12 August 2010

    You wouldn’t possibly also be on Mr Reichelt’s payroll, would you? Angling for the Deputy CEO position?

  4. GlobetrotterSA GlobetrotterSA 12 August 2010

    Fully agree. This campaign really left a bad taste in the mouth.

    They did a bad job covering their tracks as well; all domain registration details (incl. the date) are actually publicly available on the domain registration site.

    I’ve also noticed that the comments specifically pointing out the dishonesty of the campain, have been removed from the Youtube video page. How convenient. So much for transparency.

    Openly lying to your customers and then insisting to continue with that lie is simply unacceptable behaviour.

    What surprises me though, is that some people don’t seem to care that it was a lie after it is pointed out to them (was Cell C relying on that fact? What does that say about the consumer?). Some just shrug as if Trevor’s humour somehow supersedes the actual dishonesty.

    Yes, fear of commitment can be tricky. :)

  5. Bearzn Bearzn 12 August 2010

    Yoh! talking about an angry customer… I must say that I agree with you, but as I am reading I keep asking myself a question::: What if you (Sarah Britten) you are actualy part of the whole staging?? LOL! one will never know

  6. Richard Catto Richard Catto 12 August 2010

    If you’re on a month to month, why don’t you just switch to MTN and end your agony?

  7. Warren Whitfield Warren Whitfield 12 August 2010

    Yep, lost respect for Cell C through this little failed exercise.

  8. murray murray 12 August 2010

    As an activist working in a country where big companies happily screw the little guy ever day, I say shame on you trevor noah. What you did was no different than the former chairman of the youth league telling people they should be thrown in jail for corruption.

  9. cfish50 cfish50 13 August 2010

    there are far more important things in this world to concern yourself with… all marketing campaigns are trying to con you in one way or another…

  10. R.Kauerauf R.Kauerauf 13 August 2010

    The tone of the ads reek of corporate SA’s typical contempt for their customers: “Clever Trevor’s” yuppie-type, smarter-than-you attitude is more than just irritating, it’s offensive!
    If only CellC & others would spend the cash on real improvements in their infrastructure & services, clients would flock to them in their thousands. Why waste millions on dud ad campaigns?

  11. Sydney Sydney 13 August 2010

    Good article Sarah but blurting out the truth in this brutal manner is akin to killing a mosquito with a sledgehammer!

  12. Bill Rogers Bill Rogers 13 August 2010

    You lie to me once, shame on you. You lie to me twice, shame on me. I am not a Cell C customer, and after this it is unlikely I ever shall be. Never mind the ad agency, it is only Cell C management who could have signed off on the marketing campaign, the same Cell C management who are empowered to sign off on campaigns to rip off customers in the future. Having shown little regard for integrity in this instance, I for one am dubious about having any dealings with them down the line. Rather bail now, don’t hang around waiting for 4G; the integrity of the people you deal with is more important than the promises they make. Speaking of which, given the track record of integrity at Cell C, why would anyone give any credence to anything else they say?

  13. John John 13 August 2010

    I fully agree, but hey do not tell me tell Trevor Noah!

  14. Donn Edwards Donn Edwards 13 August 2010

    It gets worse. Not only did they LIE in the Sunday times, but it turns out that their “4Gs” network isn’t 4G at all, but just an upgrade from their 2G network to 3G.

  15. andrew andrew 13 August 2010

    Whats it about?

  16. The contrarian The contrarian 13 August 2010

    Come now,Sarah

    Organic fruit? What a waste!

  17. Blaq Blaq 13 August 2010

    Psss….big deal! This is simply the nature of this business for crying out loud. I just feel sorry for Trevor…he’s such a punk! Almost bought his Dvd this afternoon.

  18. V3 V3 13 August 2010

    This kind of faux-sincere advertising goes down like:
    “Your call is important to us” /
    “A better life for all” /
    “Ford has a better idea” /
    “How can we help you” /
    or the 702 announcers reading advertorial material.

    South African companies clearly believe a good advert is better than a good product of service. Apart from feeding executive egos, do they really work?

  19. ET1 ET1 13 August 2010

    The Cell C campaign doesn’t bother me that much, but the promises do. I’ve been a Cell C customer for a long time now, but when my contract was up, I decided to check out other networks, as good broadband has become very important to me, and I wanted one contract for voice and data – currently have a data contract with Vodacom. But Cell C told me they would have their 4G network up and running the following month, so I renewed my contract. That was in April, and now their ads say they’re still “building” the network. So now I’m still sitting with two contracts. If they don’t deliver on their promise soon, or if the new network is [email protected], they’re going to lose quite a lot of cutomers… me included!

  20. Dithabana Dithabana 13 August 2010

    Hi Sara

    What does “Gondwana” mean?

  21. Joe Public Joe Public 13 August 2010

    Surely this is how all ad campaigns work- feed the peolple what they want and they’ll come back for more, personally I think its a great AD campaign perhaps not a great study in morality or honesty

  22. IN__CO IN__CO 13 August 2010

    Maybe I’m also cooned but hey, the WOZA WHENEVA campaign is actually keeping my money in my pocket. So I can’t complain much about advertising, every company is trying to survive and I followed those ads with a smile on my face… Time to making that MAHALA call… bye…

  23. Danga Danga 13 August 2010

    I dialled into cell-c voicemail yesterday and the electronic voice was Trevor Noah’s.

    I like the guy, but really?

  24. kyknoord kyknoord 13 August 2010

    I know how you feel. I’m still having a hard time getting over the fact that Joshua Doore isn’t actually my uncle.

  25. Donn Edwards Donn Edwards 14 August 2010

    @IN__CO: “Woza Whenever” was another great idea that they got horribly wrong. Part of a phone service is that you must be able to call other subscribers, and that the phone being called must ring if the phone is on.

    My brother had a Cell(c) number and thought they were great until the “woza” idea was implemented. Suddenly it was impossible to call him on the weekend.

    He was a medical technician for Siemens and doctors needed to be able to call him on the weekend when their medical equipment stopped working. So in some cases it was “life or death” that they should be able to reach him.

    Cell(c) refused to even acknowledge the problem, let alone fix it, so he had to move to another network so he could continue to receive those emergency calls.

    So “woza whenever” has a different meaning for our family.

  26. laurence laurence 14 August 2010

    well put…and better still…. well put up with. to be feel that cell c has conned you and you stay is brand loyalty beyond reproach. we like our customers to tell us directly on our website where we have stuffed up and of course to be fair where we have delighted you. i am wondering if i have missed the bit where cell c have had the right of reply or the chance to fix the problem before pots shots were made in public.

  27. Piet Opperman Piet Opperman 15 August 2010

    Great response, Sarah, just one tiny error: I am sure you meant to say “OUT of season organic fruit,” less politely known as rotten fruit.

  28. Lars P Reichelt Lars P Reichelt 15 August 2010

    I don’t see why you’re so upset. It’s just an advert

  29. Ever so Clever Trevor Ever so Clever Trevor 16 August 2010

    If Trevor Noah is working “with” Cell C and not “for” them, why is it his voice I hear on voicemail, and when I get put on hold when calling Cell C?

    This relationship is way too cozy to be credible. Lars must think we’re all idiots.

  30. amanda amanda 16 August 2010

    i’ve been with cellc for about five years now, after being stuffed around by vodadom and mtn. Never had a problem with it, recently converted from payg to top up, and it’s great. very happy with reception/service/coverage/internet, simply no issues at all. to anyone that actually believed the the cellc campaign, seriously?

  31. I B N Sinking I B N Sinking 17 August 2010

    Ok let’s all just calm down. Uncle Lars does not think any of you are stupid! Applause to all of you marketing/communication/advertising geniuses who caught them out! Seriously why does this bother you it is only an AD. And don’t start about company credibility blah blah – the consumer is not going to evaluate a cell phone provider based on this stom in a teacup. Besides TN is laughing (at his own joke) all the way to the bank…

  32. brad brad 17 August 2010

    Hello complainers, I hate to tell you this but you get lied to all the time with advertisements. But you are so used to it that you now ignore it. The only reason that this campaign has got you worked up is because it managed to string you along for a bit longer. Good for them. Its a different type of advertising, its new and fresh. You should be happy, they broke the mold. Funny though that a brand that was dead is now being talked about so much. Maybe us writing about them like this was all part of the plan. hmmmm…the truth is if they can do things better than the others, I’ll port, and I’ll bet you do as well. Lets wait and see shall we…

  33. travis rutherford travis rutherford 17 August 2010

    I think that, more than anything else, it is Trevor Noah’s sell-out that has annoyed people. Of course ads are all about lies and selling a dream, etc. But comedians and satirists are there to poke fun and prick the bubble. We all thought that that is what Trevor was doing and we identified with the frustrations he was venting. Then we find out it was all a ruse. We’d feel the same if Zapiro drew a series of damning cartoons of corruption in the President’s office and then announced he was being appointed at a huge remuneration as Zuma’s chief Anti-Rot and Sleaze Executive.

  34. Ms Daisy Ms Daisy 17 August 2010

    Seriously… I don’t know what’s worse, this blog or the people supporting. Its an ad campaign. Get over it. You probably also paid by cel see, otherwise if you’re CLEARLY this upset, move to another provider #sodissapointed… Haai

  35. Lindi Khumalo Lindi Khumalo 18 August 2010

    it is a 4G network !!! it is an upgrade… i would know i work for … BELIEVE YOU ME give it time Sarah !

  36. Lawrence Lawrence 18 August 2010

    I am a loyal Cell C customer, having converted after receiving terrible service from both other networks. After 5 years I still find their service great. I am, however, amazed that they would hire a fourth rate comedian like Trevor Noah as a spokesman. Does ANYONE find that man funny?

  37. Johanne Ginoza Johanne Ginoza 21 August 2010

    get ready to throw away your old phones…they are coming out with 3d phones soon. crazy stuff.

  38. Mandrake Mandrake 23 August 2010

    Great one Sarah. don’t really care bout the lying part, nothing new there. been concerned with a young man whose humour i enjoy. now he’s whoring himself to SELL SEE.

    i wake up and radio BOOOM(trevor). in my car, TREVOR every 3splitseconds. voicemails its him again. he’s killing his brand prematurely at CELL Cs expense.

    as for crappy service, my vodacom sometimes doens’t accept calls. goes straight to voicemail. seems to be happening the whole time now. these guys need to upgrade their networks so we don’t get such crusty service. if you debit order doesn’t go off they have the entire coast guard on your derriere…

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