Let me state right upfront that I really do have better things to do than write about THAT poster. Four strategies (one of them for a campaign to celebrate our Constitution, which I’m excited about because it’s the closest yet I’ll get to putting the theory I explored in my thesis into practice). Various commissioned pieces, one of which is due tomorrow. A painting for a friend involving a black crocodile and the Joburg skyline (it being the year of the dragon and all).
But no, here I am writing about that DASO poster campaign. Firstly, hats off to them for getting as much PR mileage as they have. Already it has turned into a meme along the lines of “tendencies” and “don’t touch me on my studio” (this poster was released as the second ad, but turned out to be a parody). In my line of work, we’d be excited about all the bang for buck and try to fix a Rand value to all of this free advertising, though we’d want to know how many members or votes all of this buzz actually translated into.
Not a DASO poster
Now I want to settle down and look at what is actually going on in this rather badly art directed piece of communication (did they buy that photo off Getty Images, I wonder?) Is this South Africa’s Benetton? It could be, since it effectively dates from roughly the same era.
First observation: the response to this poster is less about the image itself and more about the advertiser claiming ownership of it and what it represents. For argument’s sake, let’s imagine that same rather naff composition of beefy white oke with ebony goddess in an ad for a condom brand. Pair it with some suitably bland brand statement such as “For when the moment feels right…” (nudge nudge wink wink blah blah fishpaste).
The ad is then not about race; the race of the couple is a casting decision. Advertisers have budgets to stick to, and South Africans still assume that ads are not aimed at them if they feature people who aren’t the same skin colour as them, so they’re always trying to find cost-effective ways of being representative. Usually this takes the form of a suitably ethnically ambiguous but good-looking coffee-coloured girl next door. So, if this had been a condom ad, some people would have been offended by the shocking notion of a mixed race couple, but it would have gone unremarked.
But nobody feels neutral about the DA. And by taking ownership of this image, by drawing attention to race, and attitudes to race, in this way, they are challenging the viewer to respond. A lot of people have responded, not necessarily in a way that the advertiser might have wanted. If anything, they’ve reinforced stereotypes that it would be in their interests to debunk: their self-righteousness, the prissiness, the obdurate refusal to engage with race in a way that acknowledges the structures embedded in society, and not just individual choice.
This poster positions the viewer, implying that
a. you would find this image unusual or offensive in some way which
b. implies that you are excessively aware of race and
c. you require education in the principles of non-racialism by the DA.
No wonder some people are as offended as they are.
Given that this is all about causing offence while simultaneously not being offended, I’m trying to work out who this poster is aimed at. The verkramptes nursing the apartheid attitudes they keep under their mattresses? African nationalists? Clearly, some people are genuinely offended, though in this case I suspect it’s the opportunistic boarding of a passing bandwagon. I last looked twice at an interracial couple in about 1996 (granted, as some people pointed out, since the couple is nude as far as we can tell, can we expect a nudist future filled with smoking hot babes?). Though I’ve been in an interracial relationship, and I was aware of the stares we got at the coffee shop in Brightwater Commons, mixed race couples have been legal since shoulder pads were in fashion and George Michael was still straight. Maybe this image is shocking in Putsonderwater; in Pinelands or Parkwood it’s just naff.
Then there’s the copy. Imagine if they’d written “In our future, you wouldn’t look twice” instead of “In OUR future, you wouldn’t look twice.” The first version states its piece quietly and then leaves. In the second, they’ve taken explicit ownership of a colour-blind future – it’s OURS, as opposed to anybody else’s – which is a bit cheeky in my opinion. In fact, it’s that capitalised OUR that gets on my tits. Tonality is an incredibly important and underappreciated aspect of communication, and here they’ve adopted the nyah-nyah tone of a prefect who surprises two Grade 9s smoking behind the Zozo hut at the bottom of the hockey field.
Like the meta-hatred I wrote about in my piece on Crocs, this is a form of meta-outrage. Certainly, some people have genuinely found this image offensive in the original sense of racial miscegenation (there’s a word you haven’t seen in ages), and have said so. DASO have manufactured an issue and, by assuming we’ll be offended by the image, have succeeded in genuinely offending almost everyone. And that outrage is less genuinely felt, more a performed response to an organisation that some love to loathe. It’s a reminder that texts can never be read in isolation; their interpretation is always moderated by who produces them and the context in which they are decoded (a reminder, since I have the opportunity to bang this drum again, why celebrities can’t say what the hell they like on Twitter, and why Durex can’t tell sexist jokes).
Apparently, more ads are in the pipeline. Maybe they’ll pair a black man with a white woman, which would be better shock value because it was that coupling that always kept the Klu Klux Klan, the Nats and the verkramptes of this world up at night. That would have been edgier than a black woman with a white man. As Marianne Thamm commented on Facebook, “[It] would be interesting to see responses if it was a black man and white woman…re subverting the unconscious power balances that are represented in the current poster. It’s too easy, too contrived to be subversive or really shift anything.”
Ultimately this has been a great education in media literacy. For once we’re not looking at the surface of an image and the sales message it carries, we’re looking through it in an attempt to understand the agenda beyond. The codes are laid bare (no pun intended). Most of the people who have seen this ad seem to be reading against it, something that rarely happens in advertising. It has triggered a great deal of debate, and that is never a bad thing. So not only is it a campaign for votes, it’s usefully didactic.
Good for you, DA. At least we can rest assured that you will always be there to show us the error of our ways.