The Problem with South African advertising. Trust me, there are many.
A few weeks ago I was on my first (of two) morning taxi rides to work, the driver was listening to breakfast radio, which is cringe-inducing at the best of times. It was one of the English stations -- could have been Metro or Kaya. An MTN ad for what I assume are their now reduced rates was playing. You may remember the Cell C vs MTN vs hectic prices vs consumers who are feeling it sub-ads stunts that lasted all of five seconds. In a word the radio ad was gross. In a few more words it was trite, lazy and disrespectful but it's nothing new for MTN, who in my opinion have never respected their market. Potsotso and Ayoba era anyone? Then the other day, on my first taxi ride from work to where I stay, while absent mindedly listening to the DJ and his guest on Ukhozi FM's afternoon drive the same "79 cents" ad comes on. But it's vastly different this time around.
I'm not saying radio spots done in black languages are always good or not gross because I certainly do not listen to enuf radio to make that assertion. But the vast difference in tone of these two ads is proof that the space of advertising to black people in our languages versus advertising to us in the English is worlds apart.
Could this be because there are different people writing the ads in the English, people who are fully plugged in and are subscribers to the unwritten rules of South African advertising that say get "a mama", have her dance and yell about our product, the end. Then another set of people are brought in to interpret the campaign and translate in into the different black languages to go out to the different radio stations. The latter are people who know not just the different languages but the nuances of black people in South Africa today as opposed to the monolith being pushed by mainstream advertising.
The problem is that the second group of people is treated as "translators" and not brought in from the beginning. What would the voice of the talented, Emmy nominated actress Brenda Ngxoli have been saying had someone who did not subscribe to the school of thought that creativity and fresh ideas are wasted on the black market, especially the poorer segments, been among the people answering the brief?
You may remember Ngxoli from the Polka TV ads from back in the day. I don't hold her participation in this fuckfest against her (much) because she's got to eat. The problem is the industry that allows these "ideas" to flourish campaign after campaign. Black actors and voice artists are rarely allowed to speak in their accents in adverts. Take Ngxoli and the actors in the Standard Bank ads, in both instances the actors speak the South African Advertising Black Dialect™.
I find the South African ad industry to be a construct, which is why we're in this mess of cultural stereotyping. Here's what I mean by construct: recruitment ads will say "must have gone to AAA or other reputable school."The last time I checked, about two years ago, fees for two-year writing diplomas at AAA and Red & Yellow were upward of R50, 000.00 pa. There are people who don't even make that much in a year, let alone have it lying around to fund a fraction of their child's dream to make commercials. Recruitment ads for communications and marketing positions, on websites like Bizcommunity, have stated in bold "must have English as first language." In this country, where at the best of times -- in my experience -- there are people speaking three different languages in one conversation. In this "RAINBOW" farce. Here, where only about 2% of the population have the English as mother tongue. That's how the industry is constructed. Old, often white, money paying for stickers that say “you is creative, you is important, you is to only write a cute ad and cast only people of a light hue because cuteness is not part of brown culture. Or whatever.”
Every now and then dudes like Khaya Dlanga slide all the way through. They get a seat at the table and get to be the magic negro. "You is special, you is different, you is not like the others," the industry says. It boggles my mind that Metropolitan can make the Ayoba campaign, and years later, make the Thula Thula ad. They're like a metaphor for corporate driven arts where artists are granted one passion project after five soul-sucking money spinners. But unlike the entertainment passion project, which almost always fails because of a lack of support from the studio, the Metropolitan Republic Thula Thula passion project did not fail. It's sentimental and so slice of life-y it even had haven't-been-with-MTN-since-
the-Nokia-1100-was-a coveted-accessory me rooting for it. Yes, ads are not art or entertainment or whatever – they are selling tools. But why sell everyone so short? Why keep selling this caricature? Representation across media matters, having black faces is not as important as what they're saying is. Why are the Thula Thula (yes, I know he's singing), Albany Mini Me from back in the day and the DSTV "Sterring" ads not the norm? I see myself and the people I've met in ads at least once every three years, which is probably due to being part of LSM DON'T NOBODY CARE!
If you're thrashing in front of your computer, yelling "then why don't the magic negroes make passion ads all the time? There's at least one at every company!" I'd like to thank you for your patience and letting me finish. You see, the way the magic negro position is set up -- universally – is kind of funny. it's not the place of the magic negro to say "I think black people are much more than that" or "uhm, my grandmother actually uses brand x and she says it'll do. Nothing to sing about. In fact, all the old women I know only sing at weddings, funerals and during the trinity of radio on Sundays on Metro FM." No. The magic negro is 'not like the others' their job is to laugh at anti-poor and, sometimes, anti-black sentiment. The magic negro is there to 'know what I mean' because they 'just speak so well'. If you don't believe me, read the comment sections on articles Khaya Dlanga's penned discussing how trivial things like economic power, the legacy of colonialism and other small legacies of our shared history are more responsible for poverty and crime than the lazy black unicorn.
This is how the ecosystem of South African advertising is set up. Built on exclusive education requirements with a seeming rulebook already placed from which none rarely dare deviate.
[Wanted to submit to Bizcommunity then I remembered I could self-publish and here we are.]