Opinionista

Eskort advert: Making adoptees the butt of a tone-deaf ‘satirical’ ad leaves a bad taste

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By Dee Blackie
09 May 2021 10

Dr Dee Blackie is a child protection researcher and community worker in Johannesburg. Following a 15-year career in marketing, branding and business consulting, she started working with communities concerned with child protection, child abandonment and adoption in 2010. She launched Courage in 2015, a community engagement programme aimed at assisting child protection officers and communities to address their daily challenges. She can be contacted at dee@bobi.co.za

How did Eskort, a major household brand, priding itself on its positioning as a wholesome, family-oriented company, react when accused of ‘othering’ adopted children? Instead of withdrawing its advert, and apologising publicly to the adoption community, it trivialised their concerns. This in a country where adoption is under threat and the lack of acceptance of adoptees an ongoing source of pain.

Like many people in South Africa, I grew up eating Eskort bacon, polony and Vienna sausages. As a homegrown brand that has been around for more than 100 years, it has become a household name that can rightly claim to be one of SA’s favourites. And, until recently, I would have agreed. This changed, however, when I received a rather disturbing message from a member of the adoption community who shared one of Eskort’s recent television adverts, developed by their new agency, Metropolitan Republic.

In the ad, twin boys are giving their brother a hard time, telling him, “Mom and Dad didn’t want you to know, but that’s the story of how you got adopted.” They go on to ridicule him for not looking like them because he’s “adopted”! The young boy, who is the butt of this abuse, responds by asking his brothers if they know that they are both dating the same girl, in a bid to “out-sibling his siblings”, but sadly the damage is done.

Apparently, in the view of Eskort, to be adopted is problematic and wrong. This in a country with the highest child abandonment figures in the world.

In 2010, I took a break from my career in marketing, branding and communication to spend time with my children. It was a wonderful year to do this, World Cup fever had hit, and we made Makarapas, learnt how to diski dance and blew our vuvuzelas every night in support of Bafana Bafana. However, all that euphoria came to an abrupt halt when I saw the front page of The Times newspaper on 21 July 2010. The picture was of a new-born baby girl, umbilical cord still attached, dead on a rubbish heap on the outskirts of Soweto. The article noted that this was not an unusual scene.

When I called the newspaper, I was advised that they had made the editorial decision to put this picture on the front page as their journalists were traumatised from being called daily to witness devastating scenes like this. When I contacted several child protection organisations, the story was the same: “We used to have a few children abandoned every month, but now we are dealing with six or seven cases every week.” This increase led Child Welfare South Africa, Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg to estimate that 3,500 children had been abandoned in our World Cup year of 2010.

This experience prompted me to leave marketing and communication and focus my efforts on the child protection community. With much collaboration from key stakeholders, I helped to facilitate the formation of a National Adoption Coalition of South Africa in early 2011. The purpose of this new body was to bring together all interested parties in the protection of our children.

And why specifically an “adoption” coalition you may ask? Well, when you have been abandoned in a toilet, a rubbish dump or a park as a newborn baby (the most common places that abandoned babies are found in SA), and there is no clue as to who your mother or father is, the best long-term outcome for you as a child is to be adopted into a loving family where you can belong and be cared for. The alternative is to grow up in one of our many children’s homes or in the overburdened and underfunded foster care system, neither of which can adequately cater for a child who has suffered such a traumatic start in life.

In 2013, having spent three years engaging with communities around these child protection issues, I returned to university to complete my master’s degree exploring the lived experience of child abandonment and adoption in South Africa. The experience was humbling. Beyond the horror of abject poverty, gender-based violence and crisis pregnancies that lead to many child abandonments, it became clear that the solution of adoption was also being denied to many desperate mothers, in what I termed the “constructive prevention of adoption”. I heard countless stories of desperate mothers unable to take care of themselves let alone a new baby, being told, “this option is not available to you”.

One mother shared how when she spoke to the nurses in the large maternity ward in which she had given birth about the possibility of adoption, she was advised “if you want to abandon your child, then you must take it outside and do it yourself”.

Child protection organisations told many stories of abandoned children being denied unabridged birth certificates which prevents them from even being considered for adoption. Ultimately, red tape was being used by government officials to stretch what should be a three-month process into one that can take from two to five years. My research indicated that the reason for these negative attitudes towards adoption were driven by cultural concerns about the courts’ role in making decisions on how families are constituted. For many this is the sole domain of families and ancestors, and this cultural concern has seen the steady decline of adoptions in South Africa from 2,434 in 2010 to only 1,123 in 2020.

Bad timing

Research conducted in 2017 by the National Adoption Coalition indicated that child abandonment had levelled to around 3,000 children per year in South Africa, but lockdown has seen another surge. Door of Hope, a baby home focusing on abandoned babies noted a distinct increase in child abandonment in the first three months of lockdown in 2020, and as abandonment is often driven by poverty levels, there are concerns that they will continue to rise. And yet, the adoption community is currently in the fight of its life.

In an effort to curtail private-adoption social workers from facilitating adoptions, the Department of Social Development attempted to include the infamous edit to Clause 249 into their Amendments of the Children’s Act currently being discussed in Parliament’s social development portfolio committee. This amendment would have prevented any private social worker or child protection organisations from charging any fees in the management of an adoption, or from using charitable donations to cover costs such as medical expenses, social work salaries and legal fees, all crucial in the process of adoption.

After much pressure, this change has been revised and the clause deleted. However, the department has made it clear that they would ideally like to manage the few adoptions that are taking place through its own, overworked social workers, who have collectively conducted only a handful of adoptions over the past 10 years.

Discrimination against adoption and adoptees is therefore a really big issue in South Africa. During my research, my most heart-wrenching interviews were those I conducted with adult adoptees who had only recently discovered that they had been adopted, often on the death of their parent/s.

Social workers advised that it was not uncommon for them to be called in to resolve family disputes where adoptive children were being thrown out of their familial home and told that they could not take part in the burial of their parents. Extended family would inform them that they are “not real family”, as they are only “adopted”.

This form of discrimination came to a head only last month, on 16 April 2021, when our own Constitutional Court ruled that excluding adoptive children from inheriting is both unfair and unconstitutional. This landmark case has been fought over several years after the biological members of a family attempted to prevent adopted grandchildren from inheriting from their grandparents’ estate.

It is quite simple: adoption is a legal form of incorporating children into families, it is a human right of those children to have a loving family where they belong and denying them this right is both unfair and unconstitutional. One would think that Eskort’s advertising agency would have thought these issues through before suggesting this advert, and the Eskort marketing team would have thought twice before approving it.

Bad taste

After seeing the advert, I quickly sent a letter to Metropolitan Republic advising them of its offensive nature and how distressed members of the adoption community were having seen it. I asked them to picture what it would feel like as an adoptive child, watching your favourite YouTuber, and seeing this ad, which is essentially what had happened to a few of the members of our adoption family. I suggested that they remove the advert in question and send a letter to apologise to the adoption community.

Arise Family, an NGO that works to support the adoption community also sent an open letter to Eskort, advising them of the insensitivity of the advert, especially in the South African context. They shared a number of insights into the advert’s potentially negative impact on adoptive children’s sense of identity and belonging. They also noted that many adoptions in South Africa are conducted across cultures and races, highlighting the problematic reference to adoptive children not looking like their siblings or parents. They rightly note, “the joke of this advert is designed to ‘other’ the child and make him feel an outsider in his own family”. This advert also highlights the all-too-common practice of parents not telling an adoptive child their birth story, with devastating consequences in the long run.

As one young man, who had recently discovered on the death of his mother that he was abandoned and adopted, noted “the abandonment, I am dealing with that. I met with the people at welfare and they told me there are many reasons that people do this. Perhaps they were not from this country, maybe she was very young, they told me lots of things. They found me near Mapetla. It’s just an area, I want to go there, maybe next week. It’s all new to me, I’m still dealing with it. I am a very emotional person. I want to find out more. There is a possibility that I find out who I am, where I am from, my culture. I don’t know who I am.” (Blackie, D. [2020] ‘Connected – A Case Study on Child Abandonment’. In Connected Lives, Nolwazi Mkhwanazi & Lenore Manderson (Editors). HSRC Press. Cape Town, South Africa.)

The reply that we received from Metropolitan Republic and Eskort was, however, not what we were expecting. In their response, they advised us that the aim of the advert was to tap into “social satire”, and most importantly that, “the boy is not adopted, the twins merely make reference to this as a means to prank him”. The agency noted that they do “apologise to the adopted child community for any distress caused by the advert”. But, they have yet to confirm if they will cease flighting the ad and their silence in this regard is telling. Rather they note, “we hope that through this engagement you’re now able to appreciate the spirit in which the commercial was conceptualised and its intentions.”

Discriminating against a child about how they have been incorporated into a family is no different to any other form of discrimination. One has to ask, how would we feel if the child was being mocked for a disability, or for being a different race or for their sexuality, would we still find it amusing or appropriate? Equally, does simply saying that the child isn’t disabled, or homosexual make a slur against them somehow better? In the words of the Constitutional Court, it is “unfair” and “unconstitutional”, and the agency and brand in question should know better. To continue to flight this advert shows a complete lack of empathy for the plight of many children in this country.

As someone who has worked in marketing for many years, I find it astounding that a brand that positions itself in the context of “family” would deny this very basic human right to children who have been abandoned, and to ridicule their status as adoptees. With this advert and its subsequent response, Eskort and its agency Metropolitan Republic manage to do what no food brand should ever do, and that is to leave a really bad taste in one’s mouth. DM

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  • The advert is directed at kids, and they are not great with satire. All a birthed kid sees is the use of “adoption” as an insult and all an adopted kid sees is that their status denigrated. SA adoption law states an adopted child is “as if born unto you”. Heartwarming and positive, unlike the ad.

    • Robert – so spot on! How as an ad agency, supposed marketing gurus, is this the message you want to impart to children?

  • I have sent an email to Eskort expressing my disappointment with this offensive ad. Please also do so from your side if you read this article and agree.

  • It’s inconceivable that Eskort and Metropolitan Republic persist with this shockingly tone-deaf, ill-considered campaign. I nor my family will support a brand that denigrates the very essence of what family is all about, no matter how that family is formed. It’s not satire, its a disgrace.

  • I have also sent Eskort an email, commenting on their agency’s ignorance and immaturity. Do you think they will even care … ?

  • “With this advert and its subsequent response, Eskort and its agency Metropolitan Republic manage to do what no food brand should ever do, and that is to leave a really bad taste in one’s mouth.” I agree and am horrified at the response from Eskort, who should be ashamed for what they have done!

  • The role of the Government in this sorry saga should not be overlooked. Perhaps if family planning clinics were more easily accessible, and the staff more sympathetic and supportive, young girls would not end up pregnant and have to abandon unwanted babies.

  • I too left a career in marketing to do my bit for orphaned children when HIV led to a flood of orphans and vulnerable children, and I was horrified to learn how fraught the issue of adoption is in SA. We need advertisements like this like we need a hole in the head. Not funny, Eskort!

  • that is probably what happens when you employ consultants to write mouth-watering scripts forwith butchered bits of pieces of animals stuffed into plastic wrappings, to also do a quick one on abandonment and adoption.