Have you ever looked at a marketing campaign and thought that no black person could possibly have been in the room when they thought that one up? Or woman, for that matter. Feminine hygiene product Summer’s Eve’s failed “Hail to the V” campaign comes to mind.
The campaign, featuring hand puppets meant to represent vaginas, caused outrage because the characters in the videos were voiced employing racial stereotypes of black and Hispanic women. The company was forced to pull the ads after the outrage.
So meet Thabo. Who is Thabo? He is the DA’s idea of you and me. He speaks for the forgotten South African who should be heard, but is ignored. “He’s the voice of us ailing in Alex, depressed in Diepsloot, sweating in Sebokeng, miserable in Mamelodi, and hungry in Hammanskraal,” his Facebook profile says.
Thabo wants you to cry out “Eish Thabo!”, a grammatically incorrect and incoherent expression of your frustration at being ignored by your public representatives.
“It’s a cartoon we’re using to drive the anti-toll message in innovative ways. Cartoons are fun and make a serious point. Tolls are going to have an enormous effect on Gauteng and all sorts of people,” said Jack Bloom, the DA’s leader in the Gauteng legislature.
“The campaign is to drum up support for the legal campaign against tolls. We’ve had protests in the street, but legal action against the tolls is the ultimate way to stop it. We wanted to maximise support for it.”
Bloom, known for sleeping over at informal settlements around Gauteng to call attention to the neglected and forgotten, teamed up with illustrator Tim Mostert to create Thabo. Mostert is the creator of the “Speedy” cartoons that appear in the Daily Sun.
“I’m involved with a large non-white demographic and I wanted to do something for the non-white demographic in Gauteng to allow people to have a voice, and I wanted to do it in a humorous way,” Mostert said. He pitched the idea to Bloom, who gave it his blessing.
Before it was deleted, Thabo’s Facebook bio read, “Eish! I’m still learning to type, and I have my own Facebook page!”
Mostert said this probably should not have been there. He had it deleted shortly after it caused a stir on Twitter. He said his experience with the Daily Sun led him to believe that characterising Thabo as he has done was the right approach. A Thabo cartoon appeared in last Friday’s Daily Sun, Mostert said.
But the bio was not the only problem.
“Well, it comes across as jaw-droppingly patronising for one thing, and it reiterates perceptions that the DA just doesn’t get the subtleties of tonality when it comes to addressing black voters,” marketing strategist Sarah Britten said.
No one is questioning the significance of the impact of tolls to Gauteng commuters and, with Sanral’s missteps, getting public support for a court case to stop the tolling should be easy, but without having to resort to gimmicks. The problem is that the Thabo campaign comes across as obviously an outsider’s perspective of the black township dweller demographic Thabo is in. His life is one-dimensional and full of misery, hunger and depression. The potential for pitfalls from there onwards is infinite.
“It’s the equivalent of a middle-aged white dude with a comb-over trying to get down with the guys at the local tavern, and it’s embarrassing,” Britten said.
“It also raises the problem of context when it comes to digital initiatives. If I’d seen this campaign in the Daily Sun, I probably wouldn’t have given it a second look because the context would be clear. But to see a campaign that targets one demographic so specifically, from a controversial brand like the DA, on a platform that theoretically everyone has access to, is fairly unsettling.”
The DA’s national communications office only found out about the campaign on Monday.
“The party was alerted to the negative sentiment on Twitter and we reviewed the website. While it is clearly a good initiative in that it is intended to drum up support for legal action against toll roads, it was too easy for people on social networks to misconstrue. We discussed it with key people in Gauteng and they agreed to rework the site to ensure that the focus going forward is on the substance of the anti-tolling message,” said Gavin Davis, national head of DA communications.
He was unperturbed about the potential for the future emergence of other ill-conceived campaigns like “Eish, Thabo”. He said the party was far more concerned about the substantive issues that affect the lives of everyday South Africans.
Given that the demographic Thabo could potentially offend the most, the black middle class, is a key to its ambitions to unseat the ANC by 2019, the DA should be questioning how such a campaign saw the light of day.
And given the furore over Helen Zille’s “educational refugees” tweet and the backlash over the party’s responses to allegations of racism in Cape Town, indications are that the DA also ought to put more work into honing its messaging to the sensibilities of its non-traditional voter base. DM
Photo: The DA’s Eish Thabo campaign.
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