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