Me­dia needs trans­for­ma­tion

Com­pa­nies that do not take bold steps to root out racism must face fierce com­mer­cial reper­cus­sions

The New Age (KwaZulu-Natal) - - Comment - Kim Heller is a colum­nist

THE nor­mal to dark bank teller lent for­ward and said to me with a pal­pa­ble trace of dis­com­fort: “Your ac­count num­ber is in­valid.”

An im­pa­tient blush of an­noy­ance fell upon my nor­mal to very pale com­plex­ion. “Please try again,” I im­plored. “Sorry” he con­tin­ued, “I found it. My mis­take. I was do­ing a Zuma with my num­bers,” he chuck­led. I did not.

I don’t have a pen­chant for the con­ser­va­tive brush strokes of anti-Zuma im­pres­sion­ism and im­i­ta­tion, with its pierc­ing lib­eral white hue. I “Dove-d” from nor­mal tepid white to a very heated red and asked: “When your white cus­tomers stum­ble over the pro­nounce­ment of your name, like Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma did over a num­ber, do you mock them too?”

This was the end of the awk­ward artistry of a stained con­ver­sa­tion that no soap could hope to brighten or smooth out.

Many of us saw red this week after Dove, a soap brand owned by Unilever, show­cased its pic­to­rial ad which pa­rades the “trans­for­ma­tion” of a black woman into a white woman after she used the Dove prod­uct. South Africa’s Arts and Cul­ture Min­is­ter Nathi Mthethwa was pub­licly crit­i­cal: “We strongly con­demn this racist cam­paign by @Dove and note with con­cern that this is not the first time they’ve been called out for racism.”

And of course an easy apol­ogy was is­sued: “Dove is com­mit­ted to rep­re­sent­ing the beauty of di­ver­sity. In an image we posted this week, we missed the mark in thought­fully rep­re­sent­ing women of colour and we deeply re­gret the of­fence that it has caused.”

Last month, Jo­hann Ru­pert, who in­ci­den­tally, was un­til re­cently a share­holder in Unilever, said rad­i­cal eco­nomic trans­for­ma­tion is sim­ply a code word for loot­ing. A vile and racist com­ment. Well it would ap­pear that “sorry” is sim­ply a code word for “easy white penance” as white-led cor­po­rates, me­dia and ad­ver­tis­ing agen­cies con­tinue, vir­tu­ally un­scathed, as se­rial racist of­fend­ers.

I was taken aback when I read an ENCA ed­i­to­rial this week: “Dove has apol­o­gised, hope­fully they will be more care­ful next time.”

How sad that we ac­cept a brush of apolo­gies from racists with a promis­cu­ity that would shame the au­thor of 50 Shades Of Grey.

No won­der than that our so­ci­ety con­tinue to show an un­der­tone of racism that could never be im­aged on any colour chart.

Racist pro­mo­tions are rou­tine – in the last few months we have seen these from 702, Out­surance, Spur and Dove, among oth­ers. And in­ter­na­tion­ally, Nivea’s re­cent pro­mo­tion for a de­odor­ant prod­uct which boasted the pay­off line, “White is pu­rity”, is but one of many of­fen­sive ads that have re­ceived so­cial scorn and have had to be with­drawn.

But per­haps com­pa­nies like Dove should not be blamed for this splash of racist ads be­cause they merely re­flect the col­lec­tive can­vas of South Africa, upon which we al­low white­ness to pre­vail as a pri­mary colour on a can­vas that should be painted in large bold black strokes.

We should not be sur­prised then when a fam­ily chain restau­rant like Spur proudly dis­plays a pho­to­graph of a black woman, who has been a waf­fle maker for 25 years, with­out pro­mo­tion, as a still life of black suc­cess.

Why are such com­pa­nies not be­ing black­listed and boy­cotted? Why are we not chal­leng­ing the white­ness of our me­dia and ad­ver­tis­ing sec­tor? Are we all still to­tally cap­tured by the dis­torted pro­pa­ganda of white supremacy which paints black­ness as in­fe­rior, men­tally, phys­i­cally, cul­tur­ally and spir­i­tu­ally?

Tom Bur­rell, au­thor of Brain­washed: Chal­leng­ing the Myth of Black In­fe­ri­or­ity, termed the phrase: “Black peo­ple are not dark­skinned white peo­ple.” He wrote about how the mar­ket­ing of black in­fe­ri­or­ity and white su­pe­ri­or­ity were the build­ing blocks in the found­ing of the US.

Bur­rell wrote that “cen­turies of pro­pa­ganda cre­ated a per­cep­tual aes­thetic de­fi­cient” and that “to­day the hymn of black is beau­ti­ful is some­thing we oc­ca­sion­ally ut­ter and rarely be­lieve”. Even for a mo­ment in time, great revo­lu­tion­ary leader Mal­colm X was se­duced by “white beauty” and ad­mit­ted how he once “conked” his nat­u­ral hair. “How ridicu­lous I was!” he wrote in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy,

“Stupid enough to stand there sim­ply lost in ad­mi­ra­tion of my hair now look­ing ‘white’ re­flected in the mir­ror.”

Bur­rell wrote ex­ten­sively about the “twisted im­ages” of and “de­hu­man­is­ing mes­sages” on black­ness in me­dia and ad­ver­tis­ing and how “our in­sis­tence that we have bro­ken free from the neg­a­tive pro­pa­ganda is wish­ful thinking. It will take more than ‘big Afros, clenched fists and dance­able slo­gans’”.

Racism and white­ness in the South African me­dia and ad­ver­tis­ing in­dus­try is translu­cent. It is as com­mon­place as a white Dove.

I have held se­nior mar­ket­ing po­si­tions in me­dia and cor­po­rate com­pa­nies and I have been re­spon­si­ble for na­tional ad­ver­tis­ing cam­paigns from a client per­spec­tive. I have per­son­ally seen how the nar­ra­tive of many ad­ver­tis­ing cam­paigns in this coun­try are crafted by all-white or pre­dom­i­nantly white cre­ative teams, even in ad­ver­tis­ing agen­cies that pro­fess to be black run and con­trolled.

I have fought against white me­dia plan­ners who direct ad­ver­tis­ing rev­enue into white me­dia, with­out much re­flec­tion on black me­dia, es­pe­cially young emerg­ing black me­dia plat­forms. I have ac­tively cam­paigned against white bi­ased re­search tools which “mea­sure” me­dia au­di­ences.

Noth­ing is go­ing to change un­less we take rad­i­cal ac­tion. The me­dia and ad­ver­tis­ing in­dus­tries need rad­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion.

Com­pa­nies who do not take bold steps to root out racism must face fierce com­mer­cial cas­ti­ga­tion and con­se­quence. In the words of Mal­colm X: “Racism is like a Cadil­lac – they bring out a new model every year.”

It is time to cre­ate a per­ma­nent can­vas of bold black strokes that will never pale.

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