In 2014, Vodafone Germany had a ‘brand purpose’ campaign (as everyone did).
It wasn’t enough to tell people about their products (dinosaur thinking).
They had to find a way their brand made the world a better place (of course they did).
That way consumers would love their brand and their products (obviously).
So Vodafone, and their agency Jung von Matt, launched a campaign called ‘Vodafone Firsts’.
They wanted to show: “When technology and human endeavour come together, amazing things happen.”
So they arranged to: “Follow Olympian, Mary Kom, as she builds India’s first female fight club in the remote region of Manipur. Follow surfer, Tom Lowe, as he attempts to paddle-surf the epic wave, Todos Santos. Follow rapper, Spoek Mathambo, as he crosses Africa to create his own musical first.”
All of this was following the marketing play-book of the time: somewhere between National Geographic and MTV.
They thought they had found the pick of their projects in Mexico.
An ancient language, Ayapaneco, that was only spoken by two elderly men: Manuel Segovia age 78, and Isidro Velasquez age 72.
But these men wouldn’t speak to each other, so when they die, the language would die.
For Vodafone it was the perfect opportunity, they dealt in speech, they dealt in technology, they would make the world a better place.
They persuaded the men to speak to each other for the sake of the language.
They employed a linguistics professor, James A. Fox, from Stamford University to fly down to Ayapa.
They built a school to teach the local children the language.
They painted the two men’s faces on the school and ESCUALA DE AYAPANELO, DON MANUEL, DON ISIDRO in large letters.
Then they made a film of it, they publicised it on the website and people were encouraged to ‘adopt’ a word from the Ayapaneco language.
The brand director of Vodafone, Gregor Grundgens, said: “This demonstrates how language, one of the oldest forms of communication, can be given a new lease of life thanks to modern communications. Technology can enable some amazing things. In this case helping to prevent a language from becoming extinct.”
So a happy outcome, except apparently it wasn’t true.
Since 2008, six years before Vodafone got involved, the Mexican government had been employing teachers to teach the local children Ayapaneco.
Apparently, the ad agency invented the rift between the two old men and, according to Sislak, who had been working on an Ayapaneco dictionary for a decade, they paid the locals to keep quiet about the truth.
Apparently, they didn’t even build a school, just repainted the old one and, as soon as the film crew were gone, the names and portraits were painted over.
Jhonnaten Rengel, a linguist who studied Ayapaneco, says the campaign: “Propagated the spread of erroneous information and has been dangerous to the preservation of other languages.”
The website doesn’t even exist anymore (the name Ayapaneco.com is now for sale on ‘Huge Domains’ for 48 monthly payments of $7.00 per month).
So, what was the point of it all?
We may never know, and that seems to be the way advertising is.
Just do what everyone else is doing or you’ll be left behind.
Never mind, there’ll be another bandwagon along in minute.