The first few weeks of 2016 has seen a surge in debate over racism, the like of which this country hasn’t seen in all 22 years of its democracy.
Among all the voracious rhetoric, finger-pointing and banner-waving, there has been an increase in blaming the media for stirring things up in the interests of increasing readers, viewers and listeners. And some cynics even point to the multitude of gratuitous advertisements that highlight racial differences with contrived, politically correct mixtures of race groups.
All of which prompted me to look back 15 years and the demand by Parliament for the media and advertising industries in South Africa to present themselves and explain some quite serious charges of racism against both of them.
I was interested to scrutinise the submission I made to the parliamentary portfolio committee on communications’ public hearings on racism in the advertising and media industries on 6 – 7 November 2001, at the invitation of its then-chairman, Nkenke Kekana.
This is what I had to say at the time. In some cases, there have been changes and in others, none at all. It makes for interesting reading all these years later.
Back in 2001 I said…
There are three areas in which racism is being practiced in South Africa’s marketing, advertising and media industries.
- The way in which the country’s mass media markets itself and the media research process they support is unquestionably racist.
- The lack of will by the advertising industry to accelerate the development of blacks is, frankly, nothing more than self-centred lethargy. But, in some cases, making it more difficult for blacks and easier for whites to get a foot in the industry door is, however, racism of the worst kind.
- White media buyers are forced to resort to racism by having little alternative but to use racist research tools to select media in which to place advertising. But, when many young and unskilled media buyers employ personal preference rather than marketing intelligence to support ‘white’ rather than ‘black’ programmes with advertising it is difficult not to call this practice racist. But more often than not, their clients are to blame for what often looks like decidedly racist decision making on the placement of advertising.
1. Mass media and racism
The biggest culprits in terms of perpetuating racism in these industries are the mass media. This is neither intentional, nor inherent bigotry, but simply naiveté and a lack of understanding of marketing. Our media has an obsession with racial differences, making these hard and fast rules instead of treating them as the rare marketing exceptions they are.
This is highlighted in mainstream media research which is owned, funded and operated by the country’s leading media owners and marketers. In essence, all research produced to help guide advertisers to media that can best promote their products, is based on the general premise that “white, coloured and Indian” consumers are different to ‘black’ consumers. There is no word other than ‘racism’ for this practice, which makes no marketing sense whatsoever.
And as long as this form of entrenched, research-based discrimination is perpetuated, South Africa will continue to have media that is marketed on the numbers of blacks, or alternatively, whites, coloureds and Indians they attract.
We will continue to have editors – liberal editors, editors who were part of the struggle; editors who by no means could be called racist – but nonetheless editors who day and in and day out boast about how many ‘black’ or ‘white’ readers, listeners or viewers, they have.
And we will continue to have advertising buyers who, because the research tools they are given to work with, will carry on making a distinction between whites, coloureds and Indians on one hand and blacks on the other.
This ludicrous situation continues to exist simply because the media industry in South Africa has been unable to adapt to a new order and has found it difficult to cast off the shackles of apartheid. It is not as easy as simply throwing away ‘Whites Only’ signboards. It involves massive mind set changes, huge paradigm shifts and in many cases, dispensing with popular brands. It is by no means impossible.
It is just that the media has not yet realised that they are the cancer – the root cause of the problem.
How did this happen?
Just how did this happen? At the height of the apartheid era, media and marketing were simple disciplines. White people who had money, power and influence all lived in specific, identifiable, areas. Blacks, on the other hand, who had nothing, were conveniently lumped together in townships.
As a result, newspapers and magazines particularly, were created to target specific race groups – upmarket, affluent whites on one hand and mass market urban blacks on the other. Add to this a media that was regulated in terms of competition and it was a simple matter to decide where one should place one’s advertising.
Today, those same newspapers and magazines exist. But now, there is far more competition for the advertising pie and formerly ‘white’ newspapers, for reasons of political correctness mainly and partly because of pressure from advertising agencies and media buyers, are desperately trying to prove that they are also read by ‘affluent blacks’. At the same time, they do not understand in their naiveté that there is actually no difference between affluent blacks and affluent whites. Just as there is no difference really between poor black and poor whites.
Meanwhile, for decades now, astute marketers in South Africa, have long since paid no heed to whether target markets are black or white.
An example of this is BMW South Africa. A while ago, I asked the marketing director of BMW SA how many black customers they had. And how many female customers. His response was an incredulous. ” We have no idea and we don’t really care.”
Because, like many other companies in South Africa, BMW understands that the main motivations in marketing are aspiration and desire.
BMW’s advertising and marketing strategy simply targets people who (a) have money and (b) aspire to own a BMW. They have found that aspiration and desire is common to men and women as well as black, white, yellow and brown race groups.
Of course there are exceptions. White people don’t generally buy skin lightening creams and black people might not buy sun tan lotion, but these are rare exceptions.
However, our media industry, mainly through its research and marketing, has decided to turn this exception into an all encompassing rule.
It confuses racial difference with aspirational difference.
Perpetuating racist marketing methods
Not only do newspapers and magazines continue to perpetuate what can only be described as a decidedly racist method of marketing, but so do television stations. They are equally adept at pointing out how many white, coloured and Indian viewers they have on one hand and how many blacks on the other.
SABC 1, a number of years ago, positioned itself to appeal to “young, black people between the ages of 25 and 35”.
The channel insisted on carrying programmes it assumed would appeal to young black adults. They assumed young black adults liked to see programmes featuring young black adults as well as advertising featuring young black adults.
In 1997, when I presented a series on advertising on TV 1, the programme executive requested that I include some advertisements “that would appeal to our young black audience”. Their idea of what would appeal to this audience was simply an advertisement that featured a young black person doing something that appealed to young black people.
As an exercise, we chose two commercials. One featured a young, dreadlocked, black youth in an amusing advertisement in which he wrongly assumed that an overweight white man was trying to push his Porsche over a cliff when in fact he was just doing stretching exercises against it. The young black guy pushed the car over the cliff.
Another ad featured a young, aggressive, tattooed white man eating a pizza and liberally sprinkling it with Tabasco sauce. When bitten by a mosquito the insect flew off and exploded.
SABC 1 executives were convinced that their “young black” market would identify with the dreadlocked youngster pushing the car over the cliff (getting back at the rich whites) and would not like the Tabasco ad because the actor in it looked like a white, racist bully.
Our research showed quite the opposite. Every single one of the 300 young black youths we spoke to who saw the programme loved the pizza ad and thought the Porsche commercial was only mildly funny.
When we questioned them about racism or retribution elements of the ads they looked at us as though we were quite mad. What appealed to them was exactly what would have appealed to any youngster regardless of his or her skin colour.
Black and white don’t differ in advertising
Over the years I have come across myriad examples of how blacks and whites do not differ. I have many black colleagues with whom I share far more aspirations and desires than some white people I know.
I know many black people who don’t just read black newspapers and watch black language news on television.
The late Zwelakhe Sisulu’s favourite television programme was not a black programme but a series in Afrikaans, featuring white people, called Orkney Snork Nie.
There is no question that the media in South Africa have been the least able to adapt to a non-racial order. And if racism is to be obliterated from the media, the industry has to take a massive leap of faith and eliminate race from its research and its editorial columns.
The problem is, that with most mass media in this country fighting for survival, this leap of faith is just too great for many media owners and marketers to contemplate. South Africa’s media industry, that is relatively inexperienced in this real competitive new world we live in, is certainly not known for its entrepreneurial leadership, but rather seems content to just keep doing things conservatively and safely. Few buy in to the modern business dictum of “the only risk is not taking one”
2. Racism in human resources
The second area in which racism exists in this country is in the field of human resources development. Here, it is the advertising industry that has not been able to adapt to a new order. Nor has it been able to really grasp the enormous benefit of including all 50-odd million South Africans in what it does.
The advertising industry has all manner of noble intentions and charters designed to level playing fields and entice black people into its exclusive fold. But unfortunately it seems to have absolutely no will to get on with the job of implementation.
The industry is still extremely white, despite the fact that many of the larger agencies have development programmes. The process is simply not happening fast enough and apart from a few exceptions many of these attempts are nothing more than tokenism.
This somewhat half-hearted attempt to bring blacks into the industry is by no means the fault of white players in the industry. Black executives in the ad industry are mostly also paying lip service to development and transformation.
Statistics show that the advertising industry is still mainly white. A lot of people in the industry point at the number of young blacks attending advertising schools and suggest that “we all wait for this to filter through into the industry”.
But, the problem is that very few young blacks manage to get a foothold into the industry without having either lots of money backing them, university degrees or some other sort of training. Unlike a lot of whites.
The advertising industry needs to create far more ambitious programmes particularly to develop raw talent and to start putting this talent to work without insisting on years and years of expensive advertising education.
In a nutshell, while young whites are managing to get job interviews, young blacks aren’t able to have their telephone calls answered. What is that, other than racism?
The same problem exists in the media industry. Those very editors who had no formal tertiary education themselves, are insisting that anyone wanting to become a journalist has to first have a relevant university degree. I am not convinced that this is so much an attempt to sort the wheat from the chaff as a feeble excuse not to have to get embroiled in lengthy interview processes.
Young talent is not going to be developed as long as bureaucratic barriers are kept in place. As it is, very few media groups are seriously doing any training at grass roots level.
3. The case of media buying
The third area of racism in the ad industry concerns the issue of white media buyers not supporting black television programmes and other media. Quite simply I believe that the culprits, with the regard to this issue, are once again the media owners, marketers and racist research techniques.
There is no question that media research as is currently available in South Africa is sorely lacking. This same research that insists on segregating the local consumer market into whites, coloureds and Indians on one side and blacks on the other is now considered by many players in the industry to be inefficient. The All Media Products Survey is past its sell by date and that futile attempt to take racism out of the equation, LSMs or Lifestyle Measurement Survey, has also just about lost all credibility.
In essence, the problem has been caused by suspect research telling media owners and advertisers what South Africans are buying but have not told them why South Africans are buying those products.
So, those entrusted with buying advertising are having to rely on research that isn’t really telling them much and which is based on openly segregating blacks and whites.
On top of which, the entire media and marketing industry tends to approach everything from the point of view of sheer numbers of black and white consumers.
Add to this the fact that the skills level of many media buyers are sorely lacking and it is no wonder that this industry is labelled racist.
Another problem that arises when one is not sufficiently trained in the art of buying advertising space or airtime, is that personal preference becomes a considerable motivating factor. Young white media buyers who only listen to white radio stations or watch white television programmes, have no experience of the value of black programmes. So much easier to choose the familiar over the dark unknown.
But another culprit here is the marketer. The client of those advertising agencies. Here again the skills level is painfully lacking and it is no secret that the level of professionalism and experience among the country’s brand and product managers is particularly low.
With the result that decisions are often a question of taking the line of least resistance. Of sticking with comfort zones. Marketers, brand and product managers seem to want to ride with the herd and here again, personal preference plays an enormous role.
So, just as those naïve editors continue to promote and gloat about the number of black or white readers they have, so too are media buyers naively pandering to skin colour when placing advertising.
I have been accused of defending these people by saying that they are not racist. Well, if one understands racism to be actual hatred by one person of another because of the colour of that person’s skin, then these people are not racist. I have no evidence in the media buying industry of any white buyers who “hate” blacks and who refuse to support black media or programmes because of a any hatred.
Another aspect of this issue is the advertising and media industries obsession with sheer numbers when deciding where advertising should be placed.
I have experiences of the same media buyers who complain to some media owners that they are “not delivering enough numbers to justify our advertising” then telling others “your numbers are too high and therefore your advertising space is too expensive for us.”
While one might not be able to accuse media buyers of rampant racism, one can certainly accuse them of stupid and muddled thinking and double standards.
Is there racism is the advertising and media industries? Unquestionably there is. The main culprit is the mass media with its obsession for continually wanting to define its target markets by skin colour. Marketers join the media as culprits in perpetuating racism by supporting and funding media research that insists that whites, coloureds and Indians are different to blacks. The advertising industry is equally racist in discriminating against blacks both through absolute idleness in terms expediting the development process quickly enough and for making it a lot easier for whites than blacks to get a foot in the door.
The brain drain has had an enormous effect on SA’s media industry, leaving it ill-equipped in terms of any significant transformation.
Racism will not disappear from SA’s media until race does. And this applies to government as well.
It would, in my opinion, be premature to resort to legislation to solve the problem of racism in the media, marketing and advertising industries. It would also be naïve to believe that these industries are capable of solving this problem themselves. They are too preoccupied with survival and massive competition to apply themselves to the task. Equally these industries are so fraught with political one-upmanship and personal agendas, that it would take forever to get all the main stakeholders to sit down and agree on some form of action.
But, I do believe the problem is serious enough for parliament to take an interest in the form of a task group appointed by and responsible to the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Communication. A task group made up of independent specialists not directly employed by any of these industries, to establish guidelines and best practice.
There are certainly any number of people who are now retired from these industries who would be extremely capable of guiding the process.
Note: A subsequent task team did in fact develop a timeline and code for transformation in the advertising industry. This was partially succesful due to the fact that as fast as the advertising industry trained and appointed black staff, their clients lured them away into the corporate sector.