/ 14 October 2020

South Africa’s advertising industry has a long way to go

Hairgate: We Must Look At Language Too To Get To The Root Of The Problem
In a country that may never recover from the deep scars of apartheid, and also, where marketing businesses should stay clear from unforeseen storms, it’s bemusing to see messaging of the Clicks type.

The recent Clicks hair campaign ruckus is a reminder that once in a while in our vibrant advertising industry, we see or hear of some energy-sapping news, to the annoyance of an industry that thrives on superlative creativity and originality.

The communications industry shouldn’t lose sight of the issues because “sanity” prevailed in the end, for such complacency has the potential to make us let our guard down where it matters most. 

The controversial hair campaign was perhaps a blessing in disguise; it represents a wake-up call to the entire advertising industry and to the brands it represents. If it doesn’t, then I am not sure how we as ad agencies would like to move forward. The vibrancy and good health of our industry must be jealously guarded. 

It’s time to be seen to be doing more to avoid mistakes that are costly to the development of the marketing and communications industry in South Africa. We must be proud of an advertising industry that prides itself on delivering race- and belief-conscious communication messaging and prudently navigating the sometimes thin line between what constitutes an offensive tone or doesn’t. 

White-owned agencies

While I am of the view that black community-targeted ad campaigns must be awarded to black-owned ad agencies, some white-owned agencies have their ducks in a row when it comes to handling ad campaigns targeted at the black community. 

There are white-owned agencies that have moved on since apartheid and are demonstrating an unquestionable understanding of the race narrative, how bungling it can have far-reaching consequences, and therefore how that needs to be avoided at all costs. 

We all know that racism is a societal and institutionalised problem. It is refusing to be done away with. In South Africa, we call for broad and sustained efforts as well as the will of individuals and organisations to unite in fighting it, whatever it takes.

There is also the disturbing and anti-progressive issue of some white-owned brands entrenching supremacy by circulating wealth around their kith and kin. This trend shows that they are yet to fully grasp the repercussions of entrenched racism, and it subtly discourages the sharing of the economic cake with black-owned ad agencies, perhaps for fear that they will become wealthy and powerful. 

In a country that may never recover from the deep scars of apartheid, and also, where marketing businesses should stay clear from unforeseen storms, it’s bemusing to see messaging of the Clicks type. There are still vestiges of apartheid among some white-controlled ad agencies. 

These white-owned agencies still view employing black people at management level with contempt. They are unaware of the fact that by including black people in their management ranks, they stand a higher probability of picking up race-delicate content and nipping it in the bud.

The lesson learned from the debacle arising from the Clicks ad campaign is that from now on, ad agencies should task their teams with the role of reviewing content. This process ensures thorough checking for any sensitive materials in the final product. This approach is most effective when done at every stage of creative and content development. 

Things to look for would be avoiding words and images that can be interpreted differently. I, however, maintain that the best way forward is to award all ad campaigns targeted at the black community to ad agencies that fully comprehend the dynamics of the black community. This means the ad agency must either be fully black-owned or of mixed-race management. Awarding ad campaigns targeting the black community should also be an act of sharing the wealth cake with black-founded ad agencies.  

The Clicks saga should elevate the debate of whether ad agencies in South Africa should start employing more people of colour in their creative management teams, so that they can check the content that may be amiss to the black community.

However, a sensitive-minded team of creatives should, wherever they have an ad campaign targeted at the black community, anticipate likely scenarios when passing certain content. This is the purpose of brainstorming sessions. 

As we strive to create a racism-free socioeconomic environment, let’s all try to avoid gaffes that in the eyes of the public may be deemed racism. 

Where red flags are raised and ignored, as happened with a former non-executive director at Clicks, who reportedly had previously asked how the business was communicating with its black community target audience, it may be indicative of white-dominated businesses turning a blind eye to issues that affect the black community.

While corporates engage crisis PR experts in these kinds of situations, the market will, for a long time, live with the negative impact. In most cases, the damage is usually too deep to undo.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.