Lwandile Fikeni
Lwandile Fikeni

A big, fat, Mzansi advertising migraine

Advertising has a way of carrying our collective cultural fantasies in nifty little 30-second bites on television and single-page print adverts in newspaper or magazines, which seem, at first, harmless and fun until, of course, they begin to illuminate the forces that inform the images we see and the consequenses of those images to our cultural point of view. What makes a work of advertising acceptable depends, principally, on its credibility to the society or market it addresses. Therefore, for the images to work, they must, by and large, affirm our own predispositions.

Currently, there’s a campaign by Nedbank, which follows the spending choices of Eugene. The most vital, and, at the same time, uncritical view of this advert is that there is a white man inside Eugene’s head, whose obvious exasperation tiredly points out to our main character’s poor spending choices, while at the same time, offering our man viable solutions that are, to be quite frank, the fantasies of our culture. Who, among us, will deny his desire to own his own business, his own house? Who, in fact, is willing to discard the view that such desires are in fact legitimate? The problem, it seems, is not the legitimacy of such desires or dreams, for any men in the modern world, but rather the fact that it is this white man’s voice, which corrects Eugene with such annoying lethargy.

The idea of using a voice that only speaks to our protagonist isn’t particularly creative or new. It is appropriated from a 2006 film called Stranger than Fiction starring Will Ferrell. The Nando’s “Give your body what it wants” campaign also employs such a device. The difference between the two adverts is not so much the underlying concepts but the voice, which burdens our protagonists, respectively. Reacting solely to Nedbank’s white voice-over, and thus, calling the work racist is rather oversimplifying the fact.

Far from being external, this voice, in particular, narrates what has been internalised and re-created by Eugene himself in order to behave in a manner that is acceptable to the hitherto dominant culture, which is, of course, the view of the society’s elite; an elite club that most of us desire to be a part of, a desire most evident in the choices of the brands we buy and the materialist aspirations we possess.

The status conferred on one upon being part of the elite table, in one way or another, is what makes us feel good about our lives as compared to others. Therefore, in this instance, the voice inside Eugene’s head is not that of the white man outside of him, but the voice of the white man inside him, the white man that he hopes to become one day. When I speak of the white man in this instant I speak of modernity — a culture that is informed by the history of civilisation. A civilisation that was imported on ships, bearing arms and a bible and famine and disease. A civilisation we’ve endured and, to a very large extent, co-created, for in South Africa one cannot speak of any advancement, especially economically, without ackowledging quite significantly the role of the black man. Our freedom and democracy bear this truth, and also, the other, more unpallatable one, that it’s a progress steeped in white man’s terms.

A historical fact not any more obvious when you consider that a black man who’s progressed in material terms is colloquially referred to as “umlungu”. This isn’t a particularly South African phenomenon, all over the world the dominant culture swallows up all available imagination and offers the world a single truth, or rather, a single fantasy. This has been the case since the European age of Enlightenment. For it means something to be white just as much as it means something to be black, in South Africa and all over the world. The price for our buy-in is not merely our hard-earned money, but our cultural annihilation and imagination. Something that brands will profit from for eons to come. My gripe with the work by Nedbank, if I’m allowed a gripe, if one considers my own complicity with the ideals of the dominant cultural view, is that for most people who are painted with Eugene’s dark complexion these fantasies of ownership aren’t even feasible, especially in South Africa where income inequality is tacked highly against people of a darker hue.

My grim view also owes largely to the fact that my bank, which is, coincidentally, Nedbank, will not give me any credit, whether to open a shop and let alone to buy a house. You have only to look at my paycheque and further, my credit rating to realise how unaffordable my dreams are. So, at the end, the advert gives me a fantasy that has no foreseeable relief. It leaves me in a worse state than I was in before watching it. A state of utter wretchedness until I realise that I am not Eugene nor am I in his position, which enables him to open a business or buy a house at a whim, and I also do not enjoy cupcakes, which are “like fairies moonwalking on [your] tongue”, as much. The dominant culture’s voice inside my mind only finds relief in elitist visual artworks and Woody Allen films and what I call “arthouse bullshit”, for which I find a distinct appeal.

A few months ago Feed A Child, a non-profit organisation, stirred the most incredible outrage throughout social media and I suppose, other social spaces as well, with its “the average domestic dog eats better than millions of children” advert. Consequently, the organisation issued an apology and pulled the advert from our televisions. Richard Poplak from the Daily Maverick went to town on the advert. His outrage was only matched by that of the twittersphere, although his was a more informed outrage, an outrage that has travelled as far as South Sudan. Between Poplak’s acerbic critique of this advert as well as the business of aid and TO Molefe’s “Another lazy South African ad” piece, I am left with very little to say about the advert, which hasn’t been said thus far, except that the child in the advert doesn’t exist anywhere else in the black world other than in the imagination of a well-meaning white person. He is, to be precise, a white fantasy: completely defeated by his circumstance, docile and domestic as dog, at the mercy of small handouts from an indifferent rich white lady.

This is merely in the images in the ad, which I must caution, one shouldn’t take so literally. If you have any modicum of self-respect you cannot take seriously any narrative about you which comes from a culture that has long refused to acknowledge that black people exist, which is why there isn’t a black person in the advert, in a true sense. My only wish is that they hadn’t cast a black child for a role that was clearly a depiction of the relationship between a trust fund Capetonian hipster and his cold, indifferent mother. All the hallmarks of this relationship are there: the languid lazyness of someone who has too much time on his hands, forever at the receiving end of a handout from his rich mother or parents, someone who knows nothing of making an honest day’s work or hustling for a day’s meal, but rather sits around licking the gravy from his mother’s wealth. A trust fund white kid’s life is the closest thing to the life of a pampered dog in a white home than a life of a black child in a poor township. It seems the only real content in the advert is that privileged white kids need to go out and truly experience life outside the confines of their cultural comfort, their privilege and their parent’s wealth. For if they do not do so, and since they are the ones who are the majority in the advertising industry in South Africa, such vacuous, ill-informed work will not be the last.

Yet, we cannot deny that this advert is well-meaning. A gesture not dissimilar to Adriaan Vlok’s washing of feet to gain forgiveness for his apartheid sins. It is oh so very South African in treating the poor as an incurable social disease that can be teased with hand-outs and food parcels without questioning or challenging the structural order that produces such rampant poverty. Poplak is correct to point out that “when we use black children as fodder … the ethical lines fray.” And I would extend this to all marginalised and poor people. And this, for me, is what lands the advert a certain tinge of South Africanness. It’s unreflective and well-meaning, with a pinch of that wilful ignorance that “liberal” white South Africans can possess.

A perspective the black middle-income group must adopt in order to fit in within this liberal agenda of the cultured class; a class of people whose exceptional lives are “alive with possibilities”. However, for some of us, the veneer of hope for this better life that we’re sold on TV with home loans and hand-outs is tainted with present bitterness about the present structural injustice that we endure quietly with spontaneous explosions of internet rage when we get the chance. That is if you can fit the rage between the stresses of having to “kill” an aunt for the millionth time because you need time off work. Because you know your boss knows that blacks are “lazy”, that you can’t be black and stressed, or black and need to take care of your sick puppy, or black and having to work from home to look after your black girlfriend who has a cold. If you’re white, then it’s a different story.

The white gaze gazing out from a 30-second TV advert and the one doing rounds around the office and that snooty one that tells me to shush at Spur without mouthing the words doesn’t just give me rage, man, it gives me physical pain, a migraine, cold sweats akin to a viral infection and I hope the Somerset public hospital has penicillin but it probably doesn’t, so I walk around knowing how exceptional I am with a Discovery health medical aid, because decent … no, just plain, working healthcare in South Africa is a privilege. No amount of cupcakes. No amount of well-meaning gestures. No amount of elevator smiles. No amount of outrage from the liberal, white block about how racist the Feed a Child advert is carries any significant meaning to the vulgar realities of being black in South Africa. And no amount of whitener is going to make Eugene white. But he can try. And I think that’s what most of our adverts try to sell. That we can try. We can also find a penny and give to the distant poor. You know.

Lastly, I’d like to bring our attention to yet another advert that was pulled from our televisions a few years ago: the SABC1 advert that featured blacks living their white fantasy and whites living their black fantasy. Poverty isn’t the dominated culture’s fantasy or aspiration, since they acquire no benefit from it, but a fantasy that is engineered by the dominant culture in order to legitimise its own existence. By legitimise, I mean, that their privileged lives, from this perspective, are the collective fantasy of the entire society and not what is wrong with society. For, it seems that one, especially in a society as unequal as ours, cannot enjoy ones fortunes satisfactorily without the glaring misfortunes of others. This single-minded upward mobility, this singular idea of modernity, of worth, of a legitimate existence, of what it means to be a just human being in all its well-meaningness, is on one hand what propels our society, and on the other what diminishes and eventually kills all imagination. And it is no more obvious than in our advertising.

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