The agency behind Nando's ads has done brilliantly, but if it's now in a constantly escalating arms race of irreverence, won't it all end in tears?
On the ceiling of the main meeting room in the office of the advertising agency Black River FC is a sign in ornate gold script.
"I wish I did that," it reads.
That line, says agency creative director Ahmed Tilly, is a challenge to his staff. If you make an advertisement and heads don't turn, he tells them, then you have done something wrong.
They stamp quirky humour onto commercials for credit cards, brake pads, and car insurance, and frequently put out ads that inch up to the edge of the politically permissible. And then leap beyond it. Two of their past three television ads for the fast food chain Nando's, for instance, have stirred up so much controversy that they have been booted from South African TV.
That's a recipe for advertisements that get brought up in dinner-table conversations and pull in YouTube hits by the hundreds of thousands. But in a country reeling from ongoing debates over how far the media should go in critiquing those in power, this small Johannesburg advertising agency has also become an unexpected flashpoint in conversations about who polices the boundaries of free speech and social commentary in South Africa.
"It's easy to create controversy," Tilly says. "In fact, it's the easiest thing in the world. But that's not the point of what we do – the point is to start discussions. And to sell the client's product, of course."
Eye of the storm
Scrunched between boutique shops and trendy cafes in Milpark's 44 Stanley complex, the office of Black River FC is standard ad agency fare: rows of gleaming iMacs and conference rooms with the remains of brainstorming sessions scribbled on easel pads.
But since 2005, this orderly office has been the laboratory for the adverts of one of South Africa's most notoriously cheeky brands, Nando's, and ground-zero for the controversy they inspire.
The most recent of those firestorms began in June, when Black River brought out an ad to promote the chicken chain's new winter meals.
As the ad opens, a cluster of men lugging suitcases sneak through a hole in a South African border fence.
"You know what's wrong in South Africa?" a voiceover asks above them. "All you foreigners. You must all go back to where you came from."
Then, in a puff of white smoke, the migrants disappear. The ad cuts to a South African street, where one by one other groups of "settlers" in the country begin to vanish from the scene – first lines of African and Middle Eastern immigrants, then a white couple, and finally even groups of black South Africans. In the end, the only person left standing on the empty landscape is a Khoisan man in a loincloth.
"Real South Africans love diversity," the narrator booms, "that's why we've introduced two more items."
Within days, the SABC, eTV, and DStv had announced that they would not broadcast the commercial, balking at what it said were xenophobic undertones. Meanwhile, YouTube views of the ad skyrocketed, eventually hitting half a million.
And while Tilly says getting the ad pulled wasn't the agency's intention, the uproar the commercial generated has certainly worked in their favour.
"Growing up in apartheid South Africa, the book that was most sought after was always the one that was banned," he says. "It's the most natural thing to be curious about what you're not allowed to have."
Advertisements that strike at a society's divisive issues can be immensely powerful, says branding expert Gordon Cook, a co-founder of the Vega School of Advertising, because consumers don't exist in a vacuum.
"The people watching your adverts live in society and they have views on that society," he says. "If your product can tap into that you can gain a lot of traction."
And Nando's constant blitz of social commentary is not without precedent. Since the 1980s, the Italian clothing company United Colors of Benetton has sold its brightly-coloured knitwear with ads addressing Aids and slamming racism and religious intolerance. And less divisively, brands like The Body Shop and Woolworths have built their name on an ethos of environmental responsibility and purity.
The key to selling a product with social commentary, Cook says, is showing that your brand cares about the same things as its consumers.
As he noted, the brand identity of Nando's – which was founded in 1987 – came of age with the new South Africa, and tapped into the mood of a country trying to make sense of the new identity it had cobbled together from a divided past.
But when Black River won the Nando's account seven years ago, they had the task of keeping audiences from getting bored of the company's endless litany of societal critique. In other words, says creative director Vanessa Gibson, the company wanted ever new ad to "make your butt cheeks clench".
But with the company already synonymous with controversy, that meant Black River found itself in a constantly escalating arms race of irreverence.
"With every campaign you have to sell more chicken, be more controversial, and get more hits on YouTube," she says. "One day I worry we're going to overstep that boundary, that we're going to push that boat out too far."
But so far, she says, Nando's hasn't flinched at the ads Black River has brought them. In 2009, the ANC Youth League threatened legal action when a Nando's commercial depicted a puppet named Julius – who bore a strange similarity to then-ANC Youth League president Julius Malema - laying out his "demands for change", – R5 of it, in fact, or maybe 10.
The following year, the fast food joint struck at the ANC's soft spot again, this time with an ad featuring a South African man showing off his several wives and imploring all South African men to "take three wives, or five, or even eight".
"We're not trying to play a role in politics," says Nando's assistant brand manager Ashley Stansfield. "We'll leave that to the politicians. But yes, we definitely want to have a place in the country's social commentary."
Just before the 2011 holiday season, Nando's approached Black River to advertise its family-style meals. How the agency did that, however, was up to them.
After volleying a variety of ideas back and forth, Black River came back with a stunner: a commercial showing a lonely Robert Mugabe setting an empty dinner table, while reminiscing on his friendships with a cast of now-deposed dictators playing water-gun tag with Muammar Gaddafi in one scene and sharing a romantic tank ride with Idi Amin in another.
"This time of year, no one should have to eat alone," the voiceover announces mournfully.
Nando's seized on the idea for the ad and Mugabe quickly seized on Nando's.
Shortly after the commercial went live on South African television – and satellite channels in Zimbabwe and across the continent – a youth group loyal to the Mugabe began to call for its removal and made veiled threats at Nando's employees in the country.
Black River and Nando's quickly called a meeting to discuss the campaign.
"We pulled it right away," Gibson said. "People's lives were at risk, which is never worth it."
But in one major way, she added, Black River still came out on top. In December 2011, Nando's Zimbabwe posted their best sales month in several years, she said.
Not all of Black River's socially-minded ad campaigns, however, are meant to court controversy. Just before the 2010 World Cup, for instance, the agency's client Mini Cooper approached them with an idea. To promote their car and energise South Africans for the tournament, they wanted to distribute mirror caps – fabric covers that slide over a car's side mirror – with the country's flag on them.
So Black River crafted an ad inviting South Africans to come to any Mini dealership for their free cap. Within days, all 30 000 that the company had printed were gone and copycat distributors had sprung up around the country.
"Seeing those on literally every car in South Africa was one of the most amazing things that I've ever seen come from an ad campaign," Tilly said.
Still, the ads that bring Black River the most attention continue to be those that strike at South Africa's social issues.
"With all these questions around censorship, it may get more difficult for us," says Suhana Gordhan, a creative director at Black River. "But I think the demand will always be there for us to keep creating work that's entertaining and stimulating."
Ryan Brown is a US Fulbright fellow based in Johannesburg, working on a study of the life of South African journalist Nat Nakasa.