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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