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Sterling Bank Plc: Stakeholders Express Disapproval of ‘Offensive’ Easter Advert

Sterling Bank
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April 25, (THEWILL) – Many stakeholders and industry players have expressed indignation and disappointment over the Easter advert slot published by Sterling Bank Plc, a Mid-Tier lender quoted on the Nigerian Exchange (NGX). The publication, now called ‘Sterling Bank Agege Bread Advert’, has stirred wide condemnation in both the conventional and social media because of the perceived derogatory content adjudged offensive to the sensibilities of members of the Christian faith.

The Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria (APCON), the apex regulatory body in the country’s advertising industry, has vowed to punish Sterling Bank, to serve as a deterrent to others, noting that the advert copy was not submitted for approval before it was made public. The leadership of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) has also demanded the sack of the Chief Executive Officer of the institution, Abubakar Suleiman, over the controversial Easter advert. The advert was published barely two weeks after Suleiman marked the fourth anniversary of his appointment as MD/CEO of Sterling Bank on April 1, 2018.

The stakeholders and industry experts who spoke with THEWILL strongly abhorred the Sterling Bank advert comparing the resurrection of Christ with the rising of Agege Bread, a non-branded bread sold by local bakeries and hawked around streets in Nigeria. The APCON had on Easter Monday, April 18, reacted to the advert, describing it as offensive and provocative. The advert copy demonstrated a puffed, golden brown, halved Agege Bread with the caption ‘Like Agege Bread, He Rose! … Happy Easter’.

Mr  Suleiman, in a letter on Monday apologised for the controversial advert saying that the financial institution never intended to offend Christians.

“On behalf of the Management and Staff of Sterling Bank Plc, I write to tender our unreserved apology to you and members of our nation’s Christian community for our Easter message email of 17 April 2022.

“The content of the infographic and the message it contained was insensitive and failed to consider the very sober nature of the event being commemorated, the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

“While the message had no malicious intent, there is no place for content that fails to fully account for the feelings of billions of people all over the world. Our honest intent was to join our millions of customers in Nigeria and worldwide in celebrating this solemn event, but our execution fell short on this occasion.

“Our policies are clear on what constitutes acceptable customer communication, and this message should not have been released to our customers. On this occasion, our editorial processes fell short of our policy standards.

“As a responsible institution, we immediately withdrew the offensive material and initiated a review of the circumstances that led to this failure. We will further sensitize our workforce to ensure this unfortunate lapse in judgement never repeats itself.

“We thank you for your continued trust in us and apologise again for this unfortunate incident.”

The bank consequently replaced the controversial advert with another in a background that symbolised Christ’s departure from the grave, captioned, “…let he who has never sinned throw the first stone. For our recent errors, we sincerely apologize. Forgive us in the spirit of Ester!”

The Chairman,  Shareholders Association of Nigeria, Ibadan Zone, Mr Eric Akinduro expressed grave concern over the advert slot which he said had the potential of igniting religious disharmony in a sensitive environment like Nigeria. He said the publication smacks of insensitivity on the part of the bank’s leadership, but advised that the bank’s apology be considered and accepted as a true change of heart.

“It is not ethically right and it can promote religious crises if not maturely handled particularly in a precarious environment like Nigeria. It shows the insensitivity of the leadership of the bank to a very vital issue like this. However, the apologies of the bank should be considered enough to let go”, he said in a note to THEWILL.

The Chairperson, Pragmatic Shareholders Association of Nigeria, Mrs Bisi Bakare, urges the leadership of CAN and members of public to see Sterling Bank’s public apology as a true change of heart. She believes that the bank would have learnt its lesson from the issue.

“The advert was not intentional but a wrong mixture of contents to interpret a very important moment. The bank has done the needful by admitting its error, and going step further to apologise. This is commendable. To err is human, to forgive is divine. I want to believe that the bank has learnt a lot from this scenario and the social media backlashes that follow after. The bank should be very careful next time especially any advert that has to do with religion or ethnicity. Next time, the contents of the advert must undergo thorough screening and proper vetting before they are made public,” Bakare told THEWILL.

An Abuja-based businessman and former banker, Abubakar Idris, wondered how Sterling Bank management allowed the controversial advert to pass through the approval process without its knowledge. “This is not acceptable. People of other faith may not accept this with the calm that CAN has demonstrated. But how can someone who is a professional sit down to create such a horrible concept?”

A Stockbroker and the Doyen of the Stockbrokers, Mr Sam Ndata, cautioned that the Sterling Bank ‘Agege Bread Advert’ could have adverse effects on the financial services industry and the bank will not get away with the offensive and distasteful advert without having punishment meted out to it.

He said, “The offensive, distasteful advert by Sterling Bank will surely affect the financial service establishment one way or the other, now or in the future. They cannot just get away with such offensive, distasteful advert without the punishment coming back to them”, Ndata who is a Chief Dealer/COO at Hedge Securities and Investment Co. Ltd,  told THEWILL in a note.

The Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria has said that it is currently reviewing relevant laws with a view to dispensing the stipulated punishment to Sterling Bank over its provocative and insensitive Easter Celebration advert.

The Council’s CEO/Registrar, Dr Olalekan Fadolapo, had said the Advertising Council was still weighing up the relevant laws in order to determine the stipulated punishment to the bank for breaching the laid down advertising canons in the country.

He said, “We have a law guiding advertising in Nigeria: the APCON law and the Code of Advertising. What we are going to do is look at the code and the sections that have been violated, as stipulated by the law. We will apply the sanction as stipulated by the law.”

The Christian Association of Nigeria in a statement signed by its National Publicity Secretary, Joseph Daramola, called for the resignation of Suleiman as CEO of Sterling Bank, describing the apology as not from a penitent heart.

“The purported apology did not come from a penitent heart. How can someone in his right mind describe the risen Christ as a loaf of bread? That is insulting, ridiculous and a mockery of Jesus Christ. We advise Christians to be wary of the banks and other financial institutions they are patronising.

“We learnt that the Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria has reportedly intervened in the matter with a view to impose some sanctions against Sterling Bank. The Christian Association of Nigeria is waiting for the decision of the organisation.

“However, in the interim, we call for the immediate removal of the Chief Executive of Sterling Bank; Mr. Abubakar Suleiman with his Management whose actions have clearly shown their hostility and hatred for the Christian faith.”

Industry experts who spoke to THEWILL explained that the management of Sterling Bank must have approved the advert before it was published, but the corporate communications department of the bank failed to submit the material to APCON for vetting. “Someone at the executive management level must have seen and given the go-ahead for the advert to be published. A bank cannot publish an advert that the Management did not approve. But failure to submit it to APCON for vetting is a serious error,” Director of a Lagos-based Public Relations Agency told THEWILL craving anonymity.

Sterling Bank recorded slight growth in its operations last year. The audited 2021 annual report showed that the Mid-Tier bank’s profit before tax rose from N12.38 billion in 2020 to N14.47 billion in 2020, reflecting 17 percent rise; gross earnings also recorded a slight  increase of 5 percent from N135.4 billion to N141.1 billion.