Why is the advertising industry still out of touch? Locally, insurance company Outsurance has often missed the mark. Remember that racist and transphobic ad that featured a white man in blackface wearing women’s clothing? And when called out, they turned into the “woke corner” only to be in hot water again for their whitewashed “Father’s Day” ad.
“We apologise for our Father’s Day video. It did not appropriately represent SA’s demographics. It was an unintentional oversight,” it said earlier this year.
Internationally and most recently, social media exploded over Dove’s problematic and loaded campaign, which shows a black woman turn into a white woman. Evoking soap ads, which have a history of relating whiteness to rightness or purity. Dove, like Outsurance, apologised; stating they had “missed the mark”.
Advertising has a wide appeal. But why are there some ads created today that are still as inaccessible, triggering and problematic, such as the Outsurance ones or all those other “dancey” ads? Especially in a country that is majority black. “The idea that black people will dance for literally anything is one of the most consistently perpetrated stereotypes in South African advertising,” Nas Hoosen recently wrote in Can we talk about race and advertising?
Ivan Moroke of Co-Currency, a marketing insight and strategy consultancy, talks about why it is that so many black people are disgruntled with the rate of progress and why work directed at black audiences is still subpar.
“Check the pigmentation of the creatives who delivered the big idea. You will see that white executive creative directors, copywriters and art directors predominate. Why is this? A key reason is that big campaigns with international relevance are entrusted to white creatives, not blacks. Whites are assumed to be more attuned to international norms,” Ivan says, pointing a “de facto system of separate development” within ad agencies.“Slow pace of transformation cuts across all industries, advertising is just one of many,” says Labour Department’s Mokgadi Pela and explains that representation is key in all industries to reflect the views of wider audiences.
If the industry was going to transform, it would have to do so urgently to avoid “missing the mark”. Sim Ndlangisa, operations manager at online publication Threaded Man and co-founder and editor of Melenial Magazine, says “as someone that has worked in a content agency that gets contracted by advertisers, you notice that Black creatives — even in Joburg — are still highly outnumbered by their white counterparts.
“In a year, I have not encountered one black woman in those spaces and it’s not due to a lack of their existence in the industry. Advertising, from the outside looking in, is embarrassingly untransformed and goes a long way in explaining the unimaginative and out of touch content that comes out of this industry”.
According to the 2016 broad-based black empowerment sector code for Marketing, Advertising and Communications, companies should be putting aside at least 26% equity for empowerment partners. It is expected that the number will rise to 45% next year, noting that 30% should be reserved for black women.
Labour law is undoubtedly in favour of transformation but this is still not reflected in major ad agencies. And gender diversity and the gender pay gap within the South African advertising is still an issue.
“There is still very little effort made to create evolving images of blackness that truly represent the complex dynamics of African people’s lived experiences, thus doing away with historically gimmicky and caricature-like-representations of black people who dance and sing to everything in commercials,” says Rebone Masemola writing on being a black feminist in advertising; tackling issues such as a lack of promotion of black employees, issues with diversity hiring and navigating “untransformed ‘previously’ white spaces”.Cape Town Fish Market advert
As someone who has worked in corporate, advertising and now music industry, Andisa Liba — an exec at Sony Music — lends her voice to the conversation. “The advertising space is in a wonderful paradigm with the surge of dynamic talent coming into the industry and completely disrupting the industry in a creative way.
“Considering the agility of the ad industry, gender equality is nowhere near where it should be in 2017 and companies are not aggressive enough in addressing the barriers. Until the industry fully commits to incorporating a more meaningful transformation agenda to overall strategy, the gap will continue to widen despite the growing talent in this space.”
The lack of diversity within advertising results in regurgitated stereotypes in media. What we see then is often symptomatic of a larger issue. Keep in mind that before any campaign goes live, it goes through several channels. So how does racism and bigotry still slip past?
Marketer, author and entrepreneur Musa Kalenga says, “Tackling the issue of transformation in South Africa — in the advertising industry — is a typical iceberg. At the surface, what needs to be changed is obvious and seems straightforward to do. However, the structure of ownership, capital legacy and human relationships that lay beneath the surface are all variables with a huge amount of complexity and should not be underestimated.”
Musa raises a good point about ownership and the lack of transformation at the top tier level of industries. How can we expect to see thoughtful, diverse, considered creative work when boardrooms contain predominantly straight white men?
Ads like Dove can be curtailed by hiring a diverse team to collaborate with. Having a room full of qualified, diverse, socially-aware individuals will provide any brainstorming session with a variety of opinions and perspectives. Creative work should push boundaries and evoke considered responses, not create work that is out of touch.
Advertising can be used as a medium to shift perspectives and contribute towards nation building, and should be treated as such. It is irresponsible to create work that does not account for the climate it is produced in, and the burden of proof should not lie with the marginalised.
Owethu Makhathini is a writer and digital strategist