Opinionista Rebecca Hodes 26 April 2013

How Xpanda’s blunder became ASASA’s grave mistake

A security company has come under fire for radio advertisements that critics have charged as racist. Complaints about the adverts were lodged with the Advertising Standards Authority of South Africa, but were dismissed this week in a decision which poses fundamental questions about the continuing quality of ASASA’s assessments and the racial dimensions of public discourse in South Africa.

Last year, a security company called Xpanda published an advertisement in the print media. The advert featured a pregnant woman dressed up in ‘slutty schoolgirl’ garb (tartan micro-mini, breasts heaving out of a push-up bra). Somewhat incongruously, the woman’s shirt was tied up to reveal an advanced pregnancy. The text read: “A one night stand arrives with a bump and bad news. You should have had Xpanda”. The advertising pitch is as derisive as it is absurd – that an Xpanda door could have been slammed in this woman’s face, barring access not just to paternal support for her pregnancy, but to sex with the man pre-figured in the advertisement, with whom the viewer is meant to identify. The advertisement probably irritated a few, amused a few others, and was ignored by the rest, before its print run expired.

Last week, however, the advert was resurrected in the social media after one of Xpanda’s radio advertisements featured in Bizcommunity’s ‘ad showcase’. The latest ad features a dialogue between two men in a prison cell. The first man asks, “What you inside for, boet?”, to which the second man replies:

“Eish, I was so hungry, so I walked up to the kitchen by the boss’s house and grabbed a roast chicken. The madam, she slammed the Xpanda door in my face. No way out. That is how I ended up in jail, with no chicken. Eish”.

Except the transcription of this dialogue does little to capture the potency of its racist caricaturing. The voice does not pronounce “madam” in the Model-C inflected tones of educated South Africans. His “Eeeiiissshhhh is the guttural drawl that punctuates jokes about kaffirs. And his crime? Stealing a roast chicken from his boss, because blacks lose their heads when faced with the prospect of a juicy drumstick.

Together with a group of colleagues who work in the media, public education and civil society, on 23 April I lodged an official complaint about the adverts with ASASA (the Advertising Standards Authority of South Africa). The first part of the complaint, which dealt with the print ad of the pregnant one-night stand, was dismissed on the grounds that it had not been published within the last ninety days. This is an acceptable time frame. According to ASASA’s website, they receive over 150 complaints a month, and without a reasonable cut-off date, their workload would become unmanageable.

The second part of the complaint focused on the radio advertisement, and it stated: “The power dynamics implicit in this dialogue… are a crude reproduction of Apartheid-era social divisions… The media strategy deployed here – the conferral of character and morality through gross stereotyping of an actor’s accent – is a clear example of racist othering, conflating the identity of working-class black South Africans with criminals.”

ASASA disagreed. In a response issued on 24 April, in which it ruled against the complaint, ASASA wrote: ‘[T]he skin colour of the actors in the commercial is coincidental to the plot. To illustrate the point once can reverse the roles, and have a white man portraying the role of the “thief” and a black man portraying the role of a “victim”. If we do this, the commercial message remains the same, meaning that the race of the actors is irrelevant to the plot. We further note that no comment is expressed about any race.”

So short-sighted is this response that it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that it is purposefully disingenuous. Far from incidental, the race of the actors is the central component of the plot. Most of the advert’s content is given over to racial stereotyping of blacks – that they love chicken, crime. This is why Sugar the Agency, a Durban-based advertising company, cast an actor to read the dialogue in a hammed-up black accent. ASASA’s refusal to admit this, and to rule against the advert, is also a refusal to accept the real substance of racial stereotypes in South Africa, and of their crass commercial deployment here.

What is going on at ASASA? Why is the organisation, which has a prior reputation for robust scrutiny of the media and its potential harms, flailing? Recently it upheld a complaint against a commercial featuring angels on the grounds that the advertisement was offensive to Christians. Perhaps its organisational culture is changing, its assessors buttressing the complaints of conservative pundits, but not pitches for greater progressiveness.

Perhaps ASASA’s ruling in favour of Xpanda is not just a case of short-sightedness, but an expression of the irritation and fatigue felt by many towards ubiquitous charges of racism in the South African media. And this, in turn, is a wider reflection of shifts in public discourse in South Africa, from the saintly non-racialism of Mandela, to Mbeki’s ‘re-racing’ of political debates, and then on to the glib racism of Malema’s tirades.

The commercial media in South Africa are not required to intervene here. Companies and their advertisers are not mandated by law to promote nation-building and reconciliation, or to serve the ideals of democratic citizenship. That is the job description of the SABC, and its successes are highly debatable.

There are many examples in which the commercial media have parodied or subverted racial identities in South Africa to sell a particular product, at times with success. One example of this was a television ad for a bank that opened with an image of a harassed-looking white woman clutching a baby and briefcase on a busy pavement. Struggling through the crowd, she is stopped by a black woman – codified as a beggar in the middle-class, white South African imaginary. The final shot is of the white woman walking away with a smile and a lighter step, her child tucked comfortably into a papoose. The black woman had not stopped to ask for help, but to offer it.

But more often than not, advertisements that rely on racial stereotypes fail. Instead of being playful, they are pernicious and divisive, condoning rather than parodying prejudice. Xpanda’s adverts are a clear example of the latter. Their agency ‘creatives’ blundered in producing them, the company’s reputation has suffered, and perhaps its profits will reflect this. But what was a gaffe for an advertising agency became a grave mistake for ASASA, the harms from which are of far greater severity and political import. DM

Rebecca Hodes is a historian at the University of Cape Town.

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