Sarah Britten
Sarah Britten

New! Improved! The nation, on sale now

In 30 seconds, an ad can tell you more about the South African psyche than an entire day spent wading through a dissertation.

A contentious statement to make, I know, but with the Loerie Awards festival taking place this weekend (I’ll be blogging it all here), worth some reflection. The significance of advertising’s role in fomenting a sense of national identity in post-apartheid South Africa is something I’ve long believed – I spent an entire PhD thesis arguing as much (you don’t have to read it; the statement above pretty much sums it up). I’m not alone in my assertion that there’s an important link between advertising and the nation. Back in 2002, Association for Communication and Advertising chairperson Mpho Makwana described advertisers as “craftspersons of culture”, and in a real sense, this is what they are. TV ads, web banners, radio jingles, billboards, retail spaces, logos, packaging: all of these sounds and words and images add up to form a mosaic in which we are utterly embedded, to the point where it is impossible to imagine the world otherwise.

Here, of course, as elsewhere, the ad industry has been undergoing a prolonged and painful existential crisis. But South Africans still talk about ads around the braai — or, these days, on Twitter — and the fact that the Loerie Awards attract as much attention as they do is testament to the continuing (and perhaps disproportionate) impact of advertising on South African culture, a status it has enjoyed at least since the early days of the rainbow nation.

This link between advertising and the national ego has long been a strong one. Even Trevor Manuel picked up on this in 2002 when he told the industry that advertising had a duty to make a positive impact on the national psyche. Does advertising, he asked, “truly capture those moments of national unity on which we can build consumer confidence?” It would appear that, a lot of the time, it does. Every time there’s a sporting event involving a national team, the patriotic, heart-warming, funny ads come out. If only we were more like one of those classic Castle Lager ads of the 1990s, we’d be so much happier.

In fact, as the history of post-apartheid South Africa unfolded, it became apparent that many of the most illuminating narratives about the new nation were being broadcast not on the news or in the current-affairs programmes or even in each excruciatingly unfunny episode of Suburban Bliss, but in the ads in between. Campaigns for cellphone networks and fax machines, beer and peri-peri chicken tracked momentous shifts in society, politics and culture with penetrating insight and incisive humour. Advertising didn’t just reflect who we were, it also offered us a vision of what we could be. In 1996 the novelist Justin Cartwright wrote that advertising was, like sport, “a huge factor in the freeing of the South African mind”, and he wasn’t really exaggerating all that much. (Puffery, as the Code of Advertising Practice calls it, and it’s allowed, within reason.)

I’m writing this piece very early on a Friday morning. I’ve put my Springbok rugby T-shirt out for later because, like a good citizen, I want to show my support for the team. It’s interesting to reflect that rugby and braaivleis defined the nation back in the 1970s, and they still do now, even though South Africa is so utterly different. The advertisers are still punting the nation — the SABC perhaps more so than anyone else through its Rugby World Cup campaign — and there’s something reassuring about that.

After all, if the idea of the nation is still considered worth selling, then it must still be worth buying.

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    • Mark

      True – but how many advertisements are there that still carry notions of the old SA as the desirable land and sideline true unity. For example, the Hunters ad: I am black and know no one anywhere of colour who talks like the lead character: China this and China that. It’s a bit of a joke watching these sorts of ads that put alien language in black people’s mouths. The ad industry frankly, has never got to grips with who and what we are – how does that make them creators of culture?

    • PostSouthAfrican

      The fact that we can use tv as medium to define a culture is sad. Business folk would not have time to be absorbed by tv ads unless its during the evening which might point put some conspiracy of brain washing. The advent of a better telecommunications infrastructure will South Africans to create their own culture and not be force fed via tv.

    • Vince Rautenbach

      The old conundrum: Does advertising influence society or merely reflect it? I watched that old Castle lager advert again, and yes, the scenario depicted (together with the Toto music) made my skin erupt into a rash of goosies…

      However, I remember taking note in the 90’s, as I did again on watching it now, how the demographics per race are reflected. There are too few blacks. But then again, more close ups of blacks…It must have been a hell of a job for the producers and the director to try get the balance right…

      It leaves one with a sense that the ad, along with the majority of them in SA, is artificial…A Frankensteinian, fumbling attempt to both manipulate popular opinion whilst pretending to be true refection….

      One can at least observe a “Black Like Me” hair straightener ad without that frisson of dissonance…Is there any ad for “whites only” that will not elicit a chorus of racism charges?…. Just a thought….

    • MLH

      Having aged enough to no longer belong to any target market worth its salt (yay), I believe that the SA ad industry has taken far too long to adjust to our new consumers. And if it has by now achieved that, it is a sad reflection on our society. All that coarse and common screaming and shouting…repulsive ads wear thin after the third viewing.

      There are still ads that go totally over the heads of the ‘majority’ consumer, though, the Allan Gray/Icon one being one…hell, at 60, I barely knew who it was about myself, but at least it was watchable. I would never judge James Dean to be an icon for anyone in this nation.

      But once the ad breaks eventually become long enough again for me to trip downstairs, boil the kettle, make tea and get back to the set in time, I’ll like them more.

    • Daniel Berti

      Interesting post Sarah!