As you switch between radio stations, between songs and between segments, you’d be hard-pressed not to hear an Eskom advert reminding you how much you need electricity— in case you’d forgotten.

It’s a given that you need energy, along with water, food and shelter, and that people will buy into this need regardless of an advertising campaign. After a slew of stereotypes – “like an Indian needs toilet paper after curry” to “like the Zulu say Limpopo” – Eskom makes its case: “SA needs electricity.”

Given the magnitude of the campaign, Eskom’s extravagant spending on advertising raises the question: why does a monopoly — particularly a monopoly that is struggling financially — need to advertise? It sparks the debate about whether a state-owned entity should advertise at all.

Eskom has admitted that its financial position is not where it should or could be.

A report by EE Publishers says that without further funding‚ the utility would move into negative liquidity of about R5bn by the end of January.

Eskom was downgraded by Moody’s at the end of November. Wasteful expenditure has been persistently flagged — particularly deteriorating liquidity levels and continued constrained access to funding. The response seems to be to embark on a public relations campaign through adverts.

The utility says: “As the national electricity provider, Eskom has traditionally run various advertising and public relations campaigns, focusing on educating customers about its product, creating awareness around the safe use of its product, and combating the theft of electricity, which has become a national problem.”

Though Eskom admits that it doesn’t have competition, it says it has the responsibility to educate customers and all users about its product.

Earlier this year, public enterprises minister Lynne Brown slated Eskom for spending money on sponsorships or advertising, because everyone knows the brand.

“People know Eskom. I even get called the minister of Eskom because of load shedding,” she said. “I have encouraged it to stop advertising. It doesn’t need to advertise.”

But since then, the entity’s adverts have been unrelenting.

The campaign spans radio adverts about the importance of having electricity to the borderline horror movie of the izinyoka (snakes), which warns against cable theft. It ranges from offensive to brilliant, but the motive remains questionable.

Shukri Toefy, CEO of creative agency Fort, says Eskom isn’t using an advertising campaign to beat off competition or to change people’s ideas about using its service.

“I think Eskom is clearly trying to strengthen and legitimise its reputation as a company that is aiming, or trying to increase tariffs, though controversial, and has been seen to perhaps misuse money or be at the centre of various scandals,” he says.

While Eskom makes use of SA stereotypes, which Twitter will tell you has alienated certain customers even more, Toefy says it almost creates an understanding of different identities within SA which makes for a successful campaign.

“I think people would find it humorous and enjoyable, and in this case I think Eskom is perhaps trying to tap into a tone, a brand tone, that is less formal and different to the other discussions happening on a different scale of the likes of government, cabinet, bureaucracy, energy regulators and tariff rates,” says Toefy.

But he says advertising on its own is not the best means to rebuild a reputation and there needs to be a concerted effort from Eskom’s leadership.

Brand Finance Africa director Jeremy Sampson says the big draw of an advertising company is to attract staff and employees.

“But based on stereotypes, I’m not sure if that works. Given that [Eskom’s] reputation is shredded, it’s terrible. It would be better to do nothing.”

Sampson says the ideal strategy would be to wait for the bad news around Eskom to pass or for there to be good news before it tries to rebuild a reputation.

“They’re under siege at Eskom, so you’d think they’d be very careful. Advertising with thinking like that is strange. They should be more accountable to the public. Quirky little radio adverts don’t seem the best way to rebuild,” he says.

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