Brandstanding on the rise
January 2012

Brands are increasingly using their advertising muscle to support social change

The early 1990s were years of unprecedented turmoil in South Africa, and the societal confusion that prevailed was reflected in the advertising industry’s loss of any consistent sense of direction.  While Sales House’s iconic “Men of Africa’ campaign tapped into the black community’s burgeoning self-confidence and sense of distinctive self-identity, SA Breweries’ marketing team were backing expensive TV commercials that portrayed mixed-race social situations that celebrated common rather than differentiated values, and a society moving towards consensus. 

Surely both viewpoints couldn’t be right?  Sales House’s uncompromising position attracted criticism from some corners for entrenching sentiments of racial exclusion, while SAB found themselves being lampooned for the naïve artifice of suggesting every local pub was a paragon of demographic representativeness.  It would be easy to conclude that SAB were the ones who really knew what was going on, given that Sales House no longer exists as a brand, and that bars and taverns today have indeed moved a long way towards SAB’s non-racial ideal.  But that’s easy to interpret with the benefit of hindsight.  The truth is that marketers and their agencies have always had to grapple with a simple but challenging dilemma: should advertising reflect the reality of today’s societal structures, or should it attempt to lead its audience along the path blazed by early adopters?  Should the offices of our top creatives be decorated with mirrors or with crystal balls?

This debate hasn’t eased up as a result of South African society becoming relatively less polarised over the past two decades.  Brands such as Nando’s continue to test the outer limits of social tolerance by taking pot shots in their advertising at communities who might not be considered to be fair game in many quarters.  Is there ever an appropriate level at which to pitch your humour?  Do you allow your brand to join the ranks of the iconoclastic and often shameless stand-up comedians, or do you embrace the safer option amongst the conservative majority who are not yet ready to appreciate mainstream brands raising a laugh at the expense of gay couples and blind people, or by finding humour in exaggerated depictions of outmoded racial stereotypes (all black women walk around bare chested with their possessions balanced on their heads)?  Again, advertising faces the same recurrent question; are we encouraging change, or entrenching the status quo?

Most recently, in mid 2010, a select band of brands have contributed to what may well be remembered in the future as a series of genuinely seminal social events in South Africa, namely the staging of the Super 14 rugby final at the Orlando Stadium in Soweto, and the use of Soccer City (also on the outskirts of Soweto) for many of the major FIFA World Cup fixtures.  These sports matches, which might on paper be considered inconsequential, were in fact quite the opposite. By dispelling many of the myths that white South Africans continue to believe about black urban communities, they were potentially as powerful as agents of social change as any event since the 1994 elections. As one brave commentator pointed out, referring to the legions of Blue Bulls supporters who attended the Orlando Super 14 final, the last time that there were that many Afrikaners wearing blue in Soweto was during the 1976 students’ uprising.  Cynical, but truthful.  Over thirty years of ignorance about a neighbouring community was dispelled in one afternoon, and it was a collective of sports-related brands – sponsors, organisers, facilitators – that helped push our society forward in this unexpected way.

If we want to find an advertising era that had no time for such niceties as effecting social change, we have to go back to a much earlier chapter in the profession’s history.  Indeed the further we go back, the more we find that mainstream advertising was an accurate lens through which to view the existing dynamics of society, but did little to grasp the nettle of potential change.  As a result, it was frequently the case that what advertising revealed as acceptable to one generation would be considered outrageous to later ones.

There’s no better example of this than an advertisement for Terrabonna Tea, which appeared in a Cape magazine towards the end of the nineteenth century (picture No. 1).  Featuring two nubile young black maidens, conveniently topless, discussing the preferred tea brands in white society and deferentially determined to follow suit, this 120-year old execution is simultaneously patronising, racist, sexist and exploitative.  It must be a strong candidate for being one of the most politically incorrect ads of all time, and yet I feel sure that in the 1880s  it would have raised nothing more than an occasional eyebrow.  A generation or two later, incidentally, SA Tourism (or its predecessors) was still playing the titillation card by using underdressed African women as a central theme in its advertising iconography (picture 2).

And so it goes. We can easily track our country’s social evolution through the changing face of its advertising.  For instance, in the years either side of the Second World War, we find an emergent visual style that owed a lot to the dramatic and militaristic schools of neo-fascist architecture and art direction that were then prevalent in Europe.  Positioning Iscor as an imposing “Vulcan of the Veld” in 1934 (picture 3) was very much in keeping with the war-mongering sentiments of the time, and this same heroic but uncompromising treatment can be seen in later advertisements for SATMAR fuel (a 1940s Sasol precursor), the SABC, and even Alpha cement (pictures 4,5 and 6).  It can feasibly be traced through to the Soviet-style poster iconography that did so much to make Carling Black Label a students’ favourite during the height of the anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s.

On the domestic front, advertisers of household products had no qualms about explicitly positioning their brands firmly within the accepted white employer / black servant relationship that was the enduring norm.  Thus in 1946 (picture 7) the mistress of the household would happily endorse the cleansing benefits of a product such as Vim, but would never stoop so low as to use it herself. It was for the male servant to tackle the grease and grime, and hence the brazen and unapologetic slogan, “Give Jim Vim”.  Seven years later, the efficacy of a bleach called Gillett’s Javel was such that it performed “like an extra maid” (picture 8). But (marginally) less expensive, we presume.

By the time that advertising gets its first taste of the swinging sixties, we might have expected it to be adopting a somewhat more liberal stance, but there seems to be precious little sign of this, even from the company that would later be criticised for over-enlightenment, South African Breweries.  A series of magazine ads from the 1960s were created under the theme of “Family Life in Our South Africa”, and number 4 in this series was a jolly kitchen scene where the whole family were mucking in and getting dinner ready (suitably lubricated by cold Castles), all the while displaying levels of excitement as if this were a rare occurrence.  Which, of course it was, as this particular advertisement is entitled “The Girl’s Night Off”. (Picture 9). My research has not yet uncovered what must surely be a further ad in the series, with Mum and Dad and little Bobby happily mowing the lawn together, because, as part of “Family Life in South Africa” it is occasionally “The Boy’s Day Off”.  Even a publication with credentials as liberal as the Rand Daily Mail apparently saw no harm in accepting recruitment ads in the sixties which explicitly stated that the positions in question were for white persons only.

If the sixties failed to bring much liberation on the household front, at least this decade did mark the first signs of an embryonic feminist movement, and the recognition that women were valuable target markets in their own right, and not just vicariously as the managers of the home.  Although there were a few false starts (“intimate deodorants” spring to mind) certain brand categories led the way in identifying the female segment as one worthy of dedicated attention, and not just as an adjunct to their male counterparts.  Motor cars, alcohol and cigarettes all, to a greater or lesser extent, blazed this female trail, with Cameo cigarettes being perhaps the best known female-focused South African brand of the time (picture 10).  It may not be a brand or a category that inspires too much admiration today, but forty years ago Cameo cigarettes boasted one of the first clear examples of an advertising campaign that aimed to influence change in social habits, rather than simply to follow the well-trodden path of least resistance.  Once again, however, it was SAB that surprisingly bucked the trend, as illustrated by their corporate campaign from the late 1960s (picture 11) which showed a decorous young woman lounging beneath a headline that read “Everything a man wants”.  The new and extra-liberal SAB was clearly still a few years into the future.

So if we accept the conclusions that these necessarily limited and selective examples appear to propound, then the phenomenon of advertising acting as a social catalyst for change and not just as a mirror to the status quo is a relatively new development, perhaps no more than a generation old.  The further question that this conclusion then begs is, what caused this new role to emerge?  There would seem to be at least three contributors.  The first is simply that society itself has become more open-minded, more questioning of its own values.  Blind adherence to conventional wisdom and to overarching authority is no longer the only option.  We are more tolerant of dissent than earlier generations, and progressive advertising is one of the mouthpieces for that new found assertiveness.  Secondly, the advertising industry has embraced a far wider range of cultural influences in the last 25 years than ever before.  We can see the work of authors, musicians, actors, scientists and every other facet of public life – even criminals and consumers – in much of today’s advertising, and these influences are rarely benign.  They prod and nudge and cajole, encouraging us to consider options that normally we would overlook.  Even the most determined bibliophobe would find, to his horror, that certain elements of progressive literature were getting through to him, as if by osmosis, through the medium of populist advertising culture.  Thirdly, the dramatic fragmentation of the traditional marketing landscapes into countless niched audiences, segments and channels has led brand owners to realise that they can afford to (indeed may be obliged to) take a few risks in order to keep their brands alive – because if they don’t, some enterprising competitor certainly will.  Being risk averse is no longer the safe haven it once was.

Brands and their advertising are changing.  They are prepared now to engage in social debate and not just wait for the outcome.  They will evolve from merely running campaigns to become active campaigners, and their advertising will be a vital tool in achieving this goal.  Brands are no longer mere facilitators of transactional choices, they are becoming fully paid up citizens, with all the responsibility that that implies.  The changing face of their advertising is helping to change the face of society.  For good.