Have you seen Mazda’s latest advert for their new CX-3 model? It’s an animated production that the company describes as “telling a true African fairytale story”.
It begins at the scene of a beautiful wedding. A beautiful bride-to-be, Thandi, approaches her traditionally and somewhat royally dressed groom. But, something is wrong. She cries tearfully indicating her reluctance to marry this older and unattractive gentleman. He leers menacingly at her as she reaches out to take his hand. A handsome man, TK, storms in and urges her to leave with him invoking audible gasps from the wedding guests. He pulls her away and they escape to his Mazda CX-3. As they drive off, her groom (remember him?) yells out in anger and they are pursued by his henchmen. On motorbikes no less.
The result is a high-speed chase from the countryside to a city (reminiscent of Johannesburg), featuring the speed and smooth steering quality of the car. When they reach the city, TK drives ahead of a speeding train in an exhilarating, Matrix-ish moment that separates him from the rest of the bikers. The advert ends with Thandi and TK tenderly kissing each other and some contemplation of the beautiful city scenery.
I really wanted to like this advert. It is nice to see an international brand recognise African culture and the demographic it is advertising to. Drawing upon the cultural heritage of our country and our language in the creation of the advert is something that deserves applause. The advert also portrays our country with a sense of modernity. There are shots of city skylines, our yellow and grey Metrorail trains and signs of industry. Not a single shot of a tourist-approved giraffe or African-style hut are seen — the traditional go-to points of reference for our country’s depiction. I can also appreciate the attempt at a more complex narrative that explores the tension between modern and traditional life in Africa.
But, this is about all the advert gets right and its “defy convention” tagline becomes downright laughable.
Firstly, it can be construed as guilty of colourism, portraying the heroic central characters with lighter skin and eyes in comparison to their predominantly brown-eyed, darker-skinned antagonists. This characterisation is troubling for a society where dark skin is arguably valued less causing many to turn to hazardous skin-bleaching treatments in the pursuit of lighter skin tones.
One can make a case that the advert denigrates traditional values by portraying traditional life as stifling, conservative and hostile while a move to the city (signifying modern values) is liberating and a positive change. Also consider the use of traditional attire of Thandi’s lecherous groom in comparison to the Western clothing choice for TK, her saviour.
However, the exploration of gender roles within the narrative is particularly worrying. The advert’s treatment of women within the advert is sexist and grossly offensive. Thandi shows little agency throughout the proceedings. She exists merely to be leered at and the prize of TK. She is visibly emotional and shows signs of anxiety contrasting against TK’s rational and calm persona. Thandi is also voiceless while both TK and her unnamed former groom have dialogue. The other notable women in the advert — the groom’s other wives — don’t come off any better. They are portrayed as jealous, unattractive and clearly indifferent to the signs of anguish Thandi displays as she marches towards an unsavoury fate.
The only time Thandi is shown taking action of her own is during the chase scene when she discards her wedding dress outside her window knocking over one of bikers in the process. It is debatable whether this was active decision-making on her part and only leads to another problematic aspect of her portrayal. Upon removing her wedding gown, Thandi is shown to be realised with disproportionally large breasts. This wouldn’t ultimately be a problem on its own but Thandi is also given features that have doomed many a Disney princess for decades: A very slender figure, doe-like eyes and delicate hands.
This sends several messages to the audience — some more subtle than others. It suggests that women are passive, mild-mannered and easily scared individuals that require rescuing by a “Prince Charming” type figure. It encourages the notion that for women to be desirable and worthy of being rescued, they should aspire to meet unrealistic standards of beauty and behave in a certain manner. It plays on the idea that in the pursuit of a man’s attention, women are “bitchy” towards each other. Men are also not spared as the advert places pressure on men to be strong, dominant stoic saviours for women. It also reproduces the tired notion that if you buy the car you will get the girl.
So why does this all matter? Adverts bombard us on a daily basis and they are incredibly persuasive. Studies indicate that exposure to stereotypical advertising can reinforce stereotypes about gender roles. There is evidence that macho advertising can encourage the audience to “adopt violent or sexually aggressive tendencies”. And, most frightening of all, studies indicate that children are incredibly receptive to advertising and its messages on gender.
The saddest part is that the team that handled the creation of the advert was actually made up of a group of diverse and talented individuals with an awareness of their audience. The result of their efforts, however, fits in with some of Mazda’s previous gems (read this). This could have proven to be an amazing opportunity to “defy convention” but Mazda has chosen to ride a very well-worn path in the depiction of gender roles within society.
Image – Screengrab of the Mazda CX-3 advert.