The Black Voice in Advertising

We open on a township setting: A young, middle-aged black woman is in the garden of what looks like a modern-day RDP house. Let’s call her Thembi.

Thembi is happily handwashing her family’s weekly laundry in a skottel wash tub. As we all know the task is tedious, and the fact that it’s being done out a tub is challenging to say the least – but not for Thembi. Her chores fill her with inexplicable joy; so much so that she breaks into dance thanking the detergent gods for this life-changing washing solution.

By now, if you’re black and socially woke, your trigger happy keyboard finger is probably hot on the pulse of Black Twitter with a fiery clapback along the lines of, ‘Hark! Some Yt has no idea what it’s like to be black, they’ve gone and insulted us.’

What if I told you the scourge perpetuating this grossly trodden on racial stereotype is the the same revolutionary who’s fighting against it? Yes, a black person created this and I’m going to tell you why.

It all began with a finely cut strategy driven by an equally accurate insight: Black people love to dance. From it, an idea and creatively crafted execution grew. Sign-offs transpired between the advertising agency (mainly the Creatives themselves) and client, and in some cases even a film production company. After a back and forth in search of that final golden signature, it rendered itself in front of a prime-time TV slot.

In all of those exchanges and approvals you would think a strong, educated and assertive black woke individual could have glanced over it – a few times probably, and meticulously at that. So, what went wrong and where was that woke voice when it was needed the most? The truth is it was silenced, and not by prejudice or the red tape of hierarchy.

It was something even more socially and creatively malicious; a by-product of the slowly corrosive cancer called Apartheid.

In it lies a catalyst for cultural betrayal and corporate bullying, coupled with the desperation of those trying to carve their lives after it. The aim was to fit creative work into a marketing comfort zone that ensured the Creative responsible his or her wellbeing. If you look at it from a monetary standpoint, that Creative thought they would keep their jobs by keeping to the strategic system quo. And not disrupt it with true, sincere and insightful thinking.

In that instance, that very same Creative is forced to play the proverbial second fiddle. When a professional black person feels like their well-being will be compromised by the decisions they take, a spiritual and emotional duress kicks in, prohibiting the ability to stand up and be counted – the very deterrent needed to prohibit freedom of expression. Let’s face it: What is creativity without it?

The South African Creative narrative is, unfortunately, that of individuals who work for a system that holds black people as a minority in creative thinking too. The white fallback becomes that we are, out of circumstance, less creative because we allegedly come from a background that doesn’t facilitate creative thinking; one of extreme poverty, with a lack of resources at the helm of it all.

In essence, this translates into a lack of a worldly view of creative interpretation and most importantly, of finding that creative spark without the guidance of our counterparts. We are allegedly creatively poor like we are economically poor, and thus require a literal approach when being fed creative work. That’s the thinking anyway.

We call ourselves strong, black opinionated thought-leaders but take a backseat when we feel our positions will be compromised. Instead of telling the black and white South African story like it is, we fill it with colour; a survival tactic cut from the cloth of the rainbow nation left for us by Nelson Mandela – a picture most corporate South Africans would rather paint and become subjects of.

Cue: Black Thabo. Black Thabo is the epitome of the South African Creative façade. He lives in Sandton and has two groups of friends: The ones he grew up with that form the backbone of the insight he draws upon when he creates ads for black people, and then he has his new school friends comprising of colleagues, a creative director and anyone else he may have met on his road to corporate success. Even though these personas do cross-pollinate, don’t get it twisted – these are not the same person.

Our creative Jekyll and Hyde can love everything black about himself and disregard it in the same breath.

Why? To get ahead and to paint the picture of a person his industry will find cool, savvy and progressive. Black Thabo will keep this façade up for as long  as it grants him the adoration of his white peers and keeps his job position intact. What he doesn’t realise is that it would be more valuable for both his career and integrity to keep it real and say it like it is to the admiration of the majority of his people – our country’s majority. It’s not his fault; he’s under employment duress.

Thabo plays his part as Black Thabo, which means he has to walk like his white counterparts that hold the creative throne. He has to talk like them, and possibly spend his pastime doing things they’d enjoy too. This is what we call cultural betrayal. In simpler terms, Black Thabo is a coconut for his cause, or Oreo if you’d like. When it comes to telling an authentic South African story about black people you cannot count on him. He will bend the truth about black people as far as he can to get an award entry or even a promotion. You can find him regaling clients with his lies in boardrooms across South Africa, then living to tell the tale in upmarket bars across the same terrestrial plain. Is he a terrible person? Your intuitive answer is yes, but compassion might tell you he’s a survivor.

The truth of it is that it’s both. He tells these twisted truths to remain creatively relevant, and in the same breath, lets his people down by not being totally honest about it. Totally honest means telling the right story. Completely honest means sticking to that story and not being facetious no matter which way the winds of strategic or client change blow.

It also means not falling victim to corporate bullying and being true to himself no matter the cost, even it means his livelihood might get caught in the cross-fire. How many of us, no matter the colour, would risk it? We all know the answer. This is the South African black Creative’s reality.

It’s not all doom and gloom: The more real stories we are afforded, the more we can change our social landscape to be truly reflective of the people that help define it. There are brands and agencies out there that pride themselves on making sure this happens; the unfortunate part is that they are outnumbered by those who’d rather rewrite the black narrative for personal gain.

I look forward to the day true black South African stories can be shared freely in advertising and our voices can be truly heard, from a truth well told.

Neo Makongoza is a copywriter at Native VML .