From Yebo Gogo to Feed A Child: Proudly South African advertising since 1994?

By Thato Magano (@pothaeto)

However, as the years went on, it has seemed that the depiction of a nation in transition has become a dream deferred. Perhaps we got comfortable? Over the past few years, we have begun to increasingly see adverts that speak to racial and sexist stereotypes in how they portray black South Africans. The now-banned Nando’s controversial ‘diversity’ ad is another example of the brand’s risqué take on the industry’s manifestations of racial micro-aggressions that frequently beset their communication with us as consumers.

1994 was a momentous year.

Very few of us don’t remember when a leopard print-wearing white yuppie first arrived on our screens whilst driving down a rural road in his BMW convertible with his ‘doll’ of a partner and came across a wise grandfatherly black man selling windmills crafted from wire.

In time-honoured style, he remains cool and indifferent as the two haggle like they’re trying to close the tightest deal of the century.

The leopard print yuppie greets the vendor with a patronizing, “Yebo! Gogo”.

But of course, the yuppies get their comeuppance and subsequently have car problems. In the middle of nowhere, they have to be humble and grovel, and buy many windmills in order to convince the streetwise vendor to let them use his cellphone to call for help.

In a happy South African ending, the yuppies drive off into the sunset with a carload full of windmills while the wise old black man gets the last laugh.

michaeldepinna

Local actor and singer Michael de Pinna who played the yuppie and Nigerian born University professor Bankole Omotoso who acted the wise hero role soon became household figures through Vodacom’s ‘Yebo Gogo’ ads that became something of a national institution.

To be sure, in 1994 three great things arrived- cell phones, democracy and a new strain of proudly South African advertising.

Post-apartheid South Africa is one of the better examples at showing how advertising can contribute towards a nation-building project. Under apartheid, products were pitched separately to white and black consumers and racial themes were approached gingerly, if at all. After the end of apartheid and the ushering in of a democratic dispensation, the new country of South Africa was seeking ways to find a common identity and ways of expression.

The national discourse was awash with themes of integration, racial role-reversal, black pride or even white identification with being African. This created an exciting new climate of freedom for advertisers, ranging from the social cohesion message laden ads where black and white South African men indulged in good-natured backslapping while bonding over a Castle Lager or a Hansa Pilsener to the more risqué executions like the many Nando’s ads that continue to accurately captivate the imagination of the nation.

At the end, a country reimagining itself was emerging, termed the ‘rainbow nation’ by Emeritus Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the fact that ads on television were showing blacks and whites enjoying a beer together, or mocking one another without the arguments ending in bullets or brawls, made it easier to accept change.

Raneisha Shernai, in ‘Do advertisements really shape our perception of society’ says “I do believe that advertisements shape the way we look at society because of the reoccurring themes that take place …. ads emphasize visual images which play a part in how the gatekeepers behind these messages are influencing the masses. Advertising tends to affect us in significant ways because we think that we’re immune to the messages being relayed.”

One of my favourite from the early years was the Telkom ‘molo, mhlobo wam’ execution from the early 2000s. It captured the essence of the country in transition and spoke to the mission of what the telecommunications giant was aiming to achieve in terms of giving millions of South Africans access to telecommunications who had previously been excluded by the system.

However, as the years went on, it has seemed that the depiction of a nation in transition has become a dream deferred. Perhaps we got comfortable? Over the past few years, we have begun to increasingly see adverts that speak to racial and sexist stereotypes in how they portray black South Africans. The now-banned Nando’s controversial ‘diversity’ ad is another example of the brand’s risqué take on the industry’s manifestations of racial micro-aggressions that frequently beset their communication with us as consumers.

Columnist Jean Barker in ‘Micro-aggression, the Macro-buzz’, describes micro-aggression as seemingly innocent, seemingly small, yet constant acts of stupidity or prejudice that people live with every day. Mocking someone’s neighbourhood, saying that a certain act is “a bit gay”, telling a woman to “man up” or “Wow, your English is so good!” to a black person. Micro-aggression is often well intended, or “just a joke”, but is born of stereotyping. Stereotypes are hurtful to those trying to escape them, and so though some micro-aggression masquerades as complimentary, it’s not.”

It has become common to find ads that play on racial stereotype around black life. This year alone, Ogilvy Cape Town was forced to withdraw the controversial ad for the NGO Feed A Child South Africa in what was an outright case of stereotyping gone wrong. In ‘Feed a child like a dog: Self-righteousness Inc. trips up’, Richard Poplak argues that “you don’t offer dignity by negating dignity. The black boy/dog is played by a real child, and although he is acting out a role and (presumably) being paid for it, the set-up feels remarkably like exploitation. By employing this element of racial trickery, by dangling the bait of the black boy, the advert is not undermining but reinforcing stereotypes—it is simply another image of black subservience fed to whites who have gorged on them for generations.”

The challenge with micro-aggression is that it is hard to detect and navigate. The question to ask is when does something cross the line from banter between friends, to become racism, sexism, or homophobia? In ‘black guy always butt of the joke in SA ads’, KC Rokkot says “don’t get me wrong, I do have a sense of humour. In fact each and every one of these ads had me chuckle, but it is worth noting that the most humourous ads or any work of art for that matter need someone to be the recipient of jest but in the case of the South African ad industry, there is a clear bias towards having the black man take one for the team. I just think they should spread the love a little more, every village has a clown, even those of other races.”

It cannot be denied that South Africa is a country with multiple contradictions in terms of who has access and has been empowered by the opportunities of democracy and there have been brands that have been able to capture this correctly in terms of addressing black people’s experiences in ways that do not always ridicule but humanise and empower them. The Bells Whiskey’s ‘The Reader’ in which an illiterate father attends night school to learn to read so that he can read a book his son authored is spot on in terms of tackling a pervasive South African challenge without making a mockery of the father’s illiteracy.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ZYPk4H4bmg

I am inclined to believe a major source for this distorted sense of how black life is represented is the lack of transformation that continues to plague the industry. As argued by Lumko Mtimde, CEO of Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA) speaking on the need for transformation in the industry, “The problem is that in the years of apartheid, the industry did not understand the country. The market was structured in a manner that served a certain part of SA community instead of serving the SA community at large …. for example they don’t know Soweto, they don’t know Katlehong and they also don’t know people living in those areas. Therefore, it would not make sense to them that the communities there can also buy the same products as the communities where they come from.”

Taelo Immanuel, a member of the Association of Black Communications Practitioners (ABCP), believes that there is a great advertising divide in the industry “I’ve been a creative director at a big agency. There’s a white creative director and a black team, and when they try and talk to each other there’s that chasm because of their respective upbringing. The references are vastly different. As a result there’s a cult of viewing life in an American way through hip hop, movies and music videos,”

As a result of this gap, we often have to contend with advertising that reflects black culture back to South Africans that is distorted. What we continue to see is not a true reflection of real South African life, but a wilfull misunderstanding of its people and culture as the power dynamics in creative spaces dictate.

We have also seen greater consumer activism to these adverts that continue to represent black life through a distorted lens. We have evidence in the Feed A Child South Africa example, where the advert trended on social media for a day and various opinion pieces were written to speak to the outrage from society at large. Last year, security gate manufacturer Xpanda was forced to stop flighting its ‘madam’s chicken’ radio spot after social media took the company to task for an ostensibly racist advert.

What is clear is that the advertising world thrives on provocations and pushing the boundaries of what is considered safe terrain by society. The challenge remains in creating an industry that is reflective in how it communicates with a growing and increasingly responsive consumer base. The industry cannot continue to rely heavily on lazy and uncreative depictions of black South Africans.

FURTHER READING:

READ: How advertising helped create the New South Africa

WATCH: Top Ten South African adverts from our younger days

READ: The South African black youth’s likeability of African-American advertisements

READ: That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore: Racial Microaggressions, Color-Blind Ideology and the Mitigation of Racism in English Men’s First-Class Cricket

23 Comments
  1. Great piece Thato. I am inclined to agree until the example given of the Ogilvy and Mather ad. What all these adverts have in common for me is the perpetuation and reproduction of stereotypes through the use or curtain of humour to inspire people to buy a product or service. My feeling is that South African’s don’t like the truth. When I saw this ad at the end I was like “ohh man, the white people are gonna be so touched, oh and the middle class black people”. My humble opinion of the Feed a Child ad is that I’m not convinced about what exactly is offensive in the advert. I’m not even sure how to approach Poplak’s argument; first it’s stripping the boy of “dignity” and it’s “exploitation” I assume of the child actor, second it’s “not undermining but reinforcing stereotypes”. I suspect his disclaimer in the latter quote is to avoid having to be explicit about what part of it is “undermining” and by implication offending him. How do we define stereotypes and at what point does it start and end at being perpetuation of stereotypes? Vulnerability is a zero sum concept, however inter-sectional it is. I’m assuming proponents of Poplak’s argument would not substitute the black child for a white child and the white lady for a black one (this therefore nullifies a racist premise). The reality is that there are people in this country, who will spend more money on lavish food and items for pets, than they ordinarily would on a homeless/poverty stricken child in SA. The difference for me between the other ads and this one is that the intention of the other is to use risque humour to sell a product or service. The Feed a Child advert is not meant to make you laugh or feel like buying something afterwards, it’s not meant to be catchy or witty. It’s meant to make you angry, uncomfortable, perhaps offend you. THEN, make you ask yourself why you are feeling all the things your’e feeling and what it says about you. Also, the bottom line is- do something. The fact that people were going on saying this is why they will never donate to Feed a Child, they can forget about their donation is actually so telling of how we think of concepts of social justice and personal responsibility. It’s ridiculous to me that someone would look at this ad and let it prevent them from making a donation to that particular charity. This for me is what we should be interrogating.

  2. Hi there. Do you know where one might find the old ‘Yebo Gogo’ Vodacom ad on the Internet? I’ve been searching for years. Cheers.

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