Black women get raw deal in adverts

The South African Human Rights Commission this month began a probe into discrimination in advertising, in the wake of a number of blunders that have laid bare the failures of the industry to adequately represent black consumers.

Black women have at times been the subjects of the industry’s pitfalls — as was the case in 2020, when Clicks ran an advert in which an image of a black woman’s hair was captioned as “frizzy and dull”. However, the equality court ruled last week that the advert did not amount to unfair discrimination.

The Clicks debacle is one example of the industry’s strained relationship with black women, who, experts say, have been used as tools to drive consumerism while white men still pull the strings in the background.

‘A deliberate strategy’

Keke Raviv, the head of marketing at Inspired Education Group, says the representation of black women in advertisements changed after apartheid.

“During apartheid, black women were hardly used in advertising. And, if they were, it was for products perceived to be for black people — like Sunlight soap or skin-lightening products,” Raviv said.

“This gradually changed to their representation in ads for things like Omo washing powder. But now we see black people and women in premium products. It’s a deliberate marketing strategy.”

Over the last decade, South African brands and advertisers have awoken to the realisation that they need to target black consumers, Raviv explained. “If you’re selling Hennessy, you put a black person in the ad. If you are selling private banking services, it’s a black person. If they are selling a luxury car, it’s a black person,” she said.

“There has been a massive shift and you can see that it’s a strategy. It’s like somebody woke up and said: ‘You are missing out on a big part of the market, the black middle class, which has come into money post-apartheid.’ That is where the focus has been and you can tell that a lot of brands are targeting the black middle class.”

If brands only sell to white people, Raviv said, they can only capture a portion of the market. According to Statistics South Africa’s mid-year population estimates for 2021, 80% of South Africans are black. Only 7.8% are classified as white.

“If you are looking for volume, which most companies are, then it goes without saying that you need to target black people,” she added.

“That’s what all brands want. They want to drive volume. The bigger the volume, the bigger the revenue. It was a business strategy.”

Anita Bosch, the research chair for women at work at the University of Stellenbosch Business School, agrees. 

“We have to understand that marketers are always looking for new markets and new market share. If you think about South Africa’s history then black individuals really were not economically active [enough] to be a primary focus of marketers,” Bosch said.

“Black individuals just did not have the money because of the laws that were in place and if they have the money it would be within the township community and a lot of marketers [at the time] did not know how to enter that market and some of the laws were prohibitive for them to enter into those markets.”

Identity-building

According to the paper “Does race really matter? Consumer identity and advertising effectiveness in post-apartheid South Africa”, the fall of apartheid has given rise to changes in the targeting practices in the advertising industry. 

“While representing the cultural diversity of the country has become a new ‘corporate responsibility’, the emergence of a growing black middle class as a financially viable target has encouraged advertisers to increasingly feature black models in their advertisements,” the paper notes.

Efforts after apartheid to represent more black women in adverts have now morphed to black women being used as tools to drive consumerism, Bosch said. Marketers, she added, have seen a gap in how black women identify themselves.

“From an identity-building perspective, young black women are rejecting the traditional idea of being a woman who is a good caregiver and are trying to embrace something else. But, because society is not producing that ‘something else’ they [marketers] are creating and providing possible identities for black women.” 

Bosch explained that these identities are then used by marketers to drive consumerism by appealing to other young black women who might share the same identities. 

“There are loads of identity spaces for young black women to move into such as the young black woman who wants to prove that she is not beholden to the traditional norms and so she may be a market for cigarettes or the young black woman who is not beholden to being regulated by society so she is very much the woman who will drink. Black women are definitely utilised for marketing gain.” 

Industry experts who spoke to the Mail & Guardian explained that the fragile relationship between advertisers and their black women targets is the result of inadequate transformation.

One-dimensional

Thembalethu Msibi, the cofounder of marketing agency BlackSwan, said there had been a concerted effort by the industry to move away from the black woman as the mother and towards the working mother.

“But there is not the relaxed woman, just living life and not having to earn her place for the 30 seconds in a commercial for being inspirational for that brand,” Msibi said.

“I think there has been a strong move away from this kind of mom figure, in which black women have been pigeonholed for a long time. They are starting to get the sense of the commercial black woman. We work. We make decisions. We lead lives. We are primary decision-makers in some instances.”

Although the intention may be to represent the black woman decision-maker, Msibi added, the final product does not always fully translate that.

Inadequate representation of black women in the industry, Msibi said, has resulted in “a one-dimensional understanding of what black women are about and the things that matter to us”.

“The reference point becomes a very low base, because you are working with a lot of decision-makers who get their understanding of what women are about based on their own relationships — the women that are in their world.”

While brands have done relatively well to have more black woman marketers, Msibi said, advertisers have been less quick to transform.

“You will find that in account management, women are more widely represented. A lot of black women gravitate towards that … Because if you do a BCom in marketing, or a diploma in marketing, that’s kind of the space you would end up in, either in account management or in brand management,” Msibi said.

“Then on the creative side, there are very limited women. And then on the production side — where we are making commercials or shooting — it is even worse.”

Msibi described an industry in which the perspectives of black women are often overwhelmed by a network of executives, most of whom are white men.

“What happens in organisations like that is that we find ourselves in situations where we are rearranging the words, or kind of skirting around the issue, or writing about it in a manner that is going to be consumable for the decision makers,” Msibi said.

“So you do end up with a different version of where you initially wanted to go. And that is what is going to get made … At the end of the day, something is going to get lost. Something is going to get watered down. That happens quite a lot.”

Who are the decision makers? 

Sibulele Siko-Shosha, the founder and chief executive of the Dumile Group, which specialises in advertising and marketing, said when women are brought into the fold, it is often as “boxes that need to be ticked”.

“Advertising is a very white industry, and a multibillion-rand industry, and because of that transformation has only really shown its face through men. Women tend to become the secondary option.”

The industry, Siko-Shosha added, has a tendency to create stereotypes. “The approval process does not lie with a black woman. So when you find that content is biased, you must also be cognisant of the fact that the person with the power to sign off on what you see on your screen is likely not black,” she said.

When black women do make it into the industry, Siko-Shosha said, they often have to fall in line in order to ensure the preservation of their jobs and the survival of their businesses. “This is a very tricky industry,” she said, adding that young women creatives are often sidelined for white men with better networks.

The problems in the advertising industry are a reflection of the slow transformation of corporate South Africa, Siko-Shosha said. 

According to PwC’s report on remuneration trends in 2022, only 32% of non-executive directors at JSE-listed companies were women. A 2021 PwC report found that only 13% of South Africa’s executive directors — including chief executives and chief financial officers — are women.

“The final decisions come from clients. What are these brands? Who represents these brands? Who makes the decisions for these brands? … We need to look at corporate South Africa,” Siko-Shosha said.

“Because advertising agencies represent corporate South Africa. So there is also that murkiness that comes with wanting to advocate for change, if you need these people to help you pay your bills. It’s very murky.”


Anathi Madubela is an Adamela Trust business reporter at the M&G.

Update 25/03/22: This article was amended to reflect the equality court judgment.

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Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She covers topics relating to labour, corruption and the law.
Anathi Madubela
Anathi Madubela is a business journalist with a keen interest in the retail sector.

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