It’s the 91st Academy Awards. Trevor Noah stands on that sparkling stage at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles, California, United States. And he addresses the entire world but actually, he’s addressing South Africans as he says, “Abelungu abayazi ndiyaxoka.”
It’s Xhosa for “White people don’t know I’m lying.”
It’s the day Black South Africa won an Oscar. Because She felt like She belonged. She felt respected and present. She felt that her language needed no clarification and was exactly where it deserved to be – out there and in the real world.
We need to talk about language in advertising. And we need to talk about in the same breath as transformation. Transformation is not a noun. And yet, our industry treats it as such – a big word with very little action behind it. We cannot transform the way we speak to our audiences because there aren’t enough black creative leaders in place. Transformation starts with our people. Then it’s about our approach, our ideas, the marketers who buy those ideas, the languages we tell stories in and the way we shift the work we’re currently making.
I am a brown woman Creative Director and I would like to talk about the way the language of black people in advertising is ignored, set aside, a sudden desperation or a relegation. In my day-to-day experience, I am reviewing more and more copy that is not written in English. This should be a good thing but the context is not because, quite simply, I’m inadequate. My skills take me to a point and then the literal, obvious lack of language takes over. On the other side of the table, the writer feels worse than I do. The way I navigate these reviews is to give direction based on meaning, to trust and to empower. Often, I turn to the writer and put it in his or her hands… “Do you think this is the best way of expressing the idea?” “Is it a well-known expression in Zulu?” But this is frustrating to the writer, and an unfair responsibility.
There is, of course, an immediate irony in me writing this article in English without any ability to speak isiZulu, Xhosa, Sepedi, Sesotho, SiSwati, Xitsonga, Setswana, Tshivenda or isiNdebele. But it’s a topic that’s important, and one that I can’t avoid anymore. However, my approach is to share the words of others––those affected by this topic every single day. I asked three questions to three black copywriters and a fellow Creative Director at FCB. Here are the questions and responses:
1. What is it that frustrates you as a writer in advertising whose first language is not English?
Vusi Khoza (Senior Copywriter): English writers write with a privileged mindset. They don’t have to explain or translate their work to anyone. When it comes to me, I have to work twice as hard to understand the nuances of the English language. On the other hand, I’m slowly losing my mother tongue and who I am. My language is always an afterthought.
Junior Mokoma (Junior Copywriter): I often feel like I have to explain myself and sometimes more than I should. Also, most brands are managed by people who don’t represent most of the country’s population. Naturally, what happens is that a piece of work will lose its authenticity and the idea becomes a watered-down version of what it initially was.
Khanyi Mpumlwana (Senior Copywriter): Having to navigate two different worlds is frustrating for any bilingual person. Your English should be palatable enough for the white people you work with, and your home language needs to be strong enough for the other black people in the office to know you’re not a sell-out. Then, there’s having to translate the scripts you write – watching them get whittled down as you sweat over trying to find English equivalents. This is the worst because it’s an unspoken assumption that our languages were created as translations to English. Lastly, there’s the advertising favourite: Treating our languages like confetti. When a monolingual writer/creative director asks for a “few cool vernac words” to sprinkle onto their English script, it’s a sure-fire way to piss anyone off. That’s not how language works.
Loyiso Twala (Creative Director): As a creative in Advertising whose first language isn’t English, I feel as though a double standard exists. Far too often, black South African writers are expected to assimilate and to be able to have a broad language to relay messages for a diverse nation such as ours, yet the same expectation isn’t imposed on non-black South African writers.
2. How do you feel when you review copy with a Creative Director who does not speak the vernacular language you’re reviewing in?
Vusi Khoza: I’m fearful that my CD might not get the idea. I’m fearful that I might misrepresent my people. I’m not the spokesperson for every black person in Mzansi. I’m fearful that I might be wrong and the CD can’t even steer me in the right direction. I’m frustrated by having to work twice as hard to present my idea. I’m frustrated by having to write twice, in my language and then in English. I feel like advertising is failing me. I could write a great piece of work that won’t see daylight because I can’t explain it. However, I’ve found ways to work around all these feelings. Sometimes I win, sometimes I lose.
Junior Mokoma: It’s tricky: Some of the nuances in scripts are dependent on vernac. It’s usually a time-consuming, back-and-forth conversation about what each word means or how each phrase is expressed differently. When the Creative Director doesn’t get it and you’ve tried to explain your script/idea the best way you know, it ends up becoming one of those ‘getting back to the drawing board’ discussions that compromises a beautiful piece of work.
Khanyi Mpumlwana: Sometimes it can be fun. Other times it can be frustrating, depending on their willingness to accept that they will only really get the feeling of 40% of the script, and the rest is simply having to know the language. Another thing that truly frustrates me is the notion that something has to be overly poeticised/sound rich just because it’s in a language other than English. Yes, in some instances that may be the case but don’t force that on your multilingual creatives.
Loyiso Twala: When I used to review work with a Creative Director who did not speak the language, I used to feel quite discouraged because there are nuances that I know will never be understood, regardless of how strong the idea is. This would lead to burying a viable idea instead of receiving support. Secondly, even when the idea was bought, I’d lack the guidance I’d grown accustomed to in improving and refining it to be better.
3. What is your ideal vision for the future of language in advertising?
Vusi Khoza: My language is me. I am my language. I see a future where work written in my language is given the same privileges as the English language. First-language English writers must learn our languages.
Junior Mokoma: It would be great if everyone learned how each culture expresses itself. I wish there could be trust in knowing that I know what I’m talking about and in feedback given. Greater understanding would alleviate confusion and it will also mean we get to solve briefs quicker because we just get each other.
Khanyi Mpumlwana: Agencies: Pay for your monolingual creatives to learn a black language. We’re in South Africa, where the majority of people are multilingual – it’s no longer an excuse to not even try to understand. Monolingual Creatives: Recognise the privilege you have. The whole country’s standard mode of communication is one that makes a minority feel comfortable. The advertising default is English. Our languages, cultures and ways of expression should be celebrated in more than just a small category at the Loeries. Learn something. Use that same passion you have for learning French on Duolingo to learn isiXhosa. And realise that there’s way more to write than “Sanibonani” or “Yebo” in your ads. An industry that expresses itself as a true reflection of the country, is one that will thrive.
Loyiso Twala: Let’s transform the copy deck. My wish for the future of language in advertising is simple: That every South African writer be truly that – South African. I wish for practicing writers to have an interest beyond their mother tongue so that they can reach the majority of South African audiences. For student writers, I wish that they would be trained to serve the country they live in with a broader language and understanding of Mzansi. The day we get this right, we won’t need translators but will rather have original scripts that will speak to audiences more authentically.
I’d like to thank my colleagues for allowing me to ask these questions and for sharing what I know are not easily aired views. Gratitude for your honesty and for trusting me with your words. I really hope that this can inspire more open and honest conversations between all of us in this industry.
For now, there are some steps we can take as creative leaders to build a safer, more inclusive creative space: Add a buddy to the review who speaks the language and is comfortable giving input. Create rules of engagement when collaborating with black-language writers to avoid “confetti syndrome.” Include writers of vernacular languages in the initial briefing. Determine what languages your copywriters feel comfortable writing in–don’t just assume. And finally, how about we make it compulsory for ALL advertising agencies to introduce training in one of our country’s languages?
My experiences in the last few weeks have taught me that ignoring the feelings of our fellow creatives means that we’re forcing creativity to thrive in a room full of frustrations and respectful tolerance. What chance of survival does a great idea have when it’s born this way?
My own wish is for the review room to become less political and more creative. But in order for that to happen, the people in the room need to look and sound more like the people that make up the majority of South Africans we speak to every day.
I’m a lover of language so when anyone asks me what superpower I’d love to have, I always say, “To be able to speak any language in the world.” But let’s leave the world alone for now. In South Africa, learning to speak at least one of our 11 official languages is not a superpower, it’s just an absolute necessity.
Title credit: Khanyi Mpumlwana.