An advert in your home language has huge impact. The SABC has tapped into this by creating its own vernacular creative agency, writes Melina Meletakos.
If you can show an audience that you understand them, you become their family, their friend, their neighbour.
This is the reason given by Neo Mashigo, co-executive creative director for Ogilvy & Mather Johannesburg, for leading the transformation of vernacular radio advertising in South Africa.
“A big issue in South Africa is that we don’t learn enough of each other’s languages. Doing so changes your relationship with a person. It’s the same with advertising. It’s important to acknowledge and recognise different population groups in South Africa. It’s about saying, ‘I see you. I hear you’,” says Mashigo.
The SABC has also recognised the value of creating advertising messages that speak to consumers in their mother tongue. The broadcaster has set up the African Language Service (ALS) Creative Hub, a unit that produces original scripts for vernacular adverts using a creative team of copywriters, translators and first language voice-over artists.
Gilda De Araujo, the national brand sales manager of SABC’s radio division, says offering advertisers a service like this is important for the public broadcaster, which has nine African language stations.
“We own the African language market, so it’s vital that we have a service that offers advertisers expert script-writing and production in these languages,” says De Araujo. “Often, scripts are written in English and then simply translated, with very little understanding of how this community speaks and engages. This means that ultimately the advertiser minimises the value and impact of the campaign’s objective.”
This is the root of the problem that has left African language advertising trailing in the dust of its English and Afrikaans counterparts. De Araujo says scripts are often translated without taking into account the little cultural nuances that imbue a language with meaning.
Maekanya Morotoba, the head of the SABC’s creative and Radio Active Production (RAP) studios, says listeners pick up mistakes made by marketers and, as proud custodians of their language, they have no qualms about condemning these blunders.
“We reject many adverts because of that. The assumption is that the station creates the ads. The listener doesn’t necessarily know about the advertising industry and how it runs. When it’s played on Motsweding FM, for example, it’s considered Motsweding’s property. We can’t go back to the listener and say, ‘No, it’s not us.’ We have to safeguard our products,” says Morotoba.
Adds De Araujo, “The investment might be R500 000 in buying the airtime, and that little 30-second ad has to deliver the return on investment (ROI). So it’s vital that we offer the scripting and production expertise that will help to deliver the right results on our stations. Advertisers are often concerned about the increased production costs when producing ads across several of our African language stations, rather than just producing an English ad. They should consider that the production cost is relative to the ROI. The more time and effort that is invested in getting the initial message right, the greater the traction with our listeners. This way there is also a greater chance of the campaign delivering on its objectives. Short cuts will get you short results.”
The dearth of advertising agency creatives who are capable of crafting adverts in African languages is one of the setbacks that Mashigo has focused on addressing. He has made a concerted effort to recruit more young black talent, whom he mentors to write in their mother tongue. Mashigo is also part of the Loeries committee, where he has played a significant role in introducing the New Voice Award to encourage original vernacular radio adverts.
And yet, Mashigo shies away from using the term ‘vernacular advertising’ because “an idea is an idea”, he says. “It’s based on insights that ring true to the people to whom you are talking. An idea is the same in English, Afrikaans or vernacular. Vernacular advertising is not another genre of advertising; it’s just another way of writing about the same idea. Where it differs is that English humour might be different from Zulu humour, for example. But the idea, that golden thread, doesn’t change.”
Mashigo and other mother tongue advertising proponents toyed with the idea of launching vernacular awards, but have decided instead to back the Loeries as the country’s ultimate brand communication awards.
“We hope that in the long term they can do away with the New Voice category so that vernacular adverts can stand on their own and compete in any other category,” he says.
But vernacular media doesn’t only suffer from generally poorly made adverts. It also receives a sliver of the ad spend pie despite being able to deliver large audiences.
Richard Lord, associate media director at The MediaShop, says a large part of this dilemma comes down to shrinking budgets.
“Times are tough and budgets aren’t getting any bigger. The cost to advertise is increasing all the time and many advertisers are trying to save on production costs where they can, so that means that they often elect to create an ad in just one language because it is obviously cheaper,” says Lord.
Another reason, he adds, is that “many of us who are in charge of advertisers’ budgets come from very affluent backgrounds and, as with anything, you tend to use what you know”.
Cameron Maclear, unit director for OMG Africa, offers a different view, saying that the problem lies rather with media owners.
“When it comes down to it, privately owned radio stations are better run. Vernacular stations tend to have programming that is not necessarily geared towards advertising, like promos or sponsorship packages. Private English commercial stations deliver more of an integrated approach,” he says.
Morotoba says there is a false perception that African stations are listened to by people who are very poor. “The reality is that the ALS stations have good quality audiences. If you look at a station like Lesedi FM, the listenership in Gauteng alone supercedes most of the stations that people perceive to be big stations,” he says.
De Araujo says that the LSM 1–3 segment of the population has decreased significantly in recent years and that this market has now moved into LSM 4–7, the middle market. Marketers still think that ALS stations only cater to the lowest end of the market when in fact the SABC dominates in the LSM 4–7 category.
She also says brands that want to grow within the South African market should be investing in the LSM 5–7 market as tomorrow’s LSM 8–10 market will grow out of these consumers. And, she adds, brands that are already building a firm relationship with this market will be ahead of the game in future.
It’s important to remember, says De Araujo, that English may be the language of business but, for most of our population, it’s not necessarily the language of choice.
“As soon as you earn a good salary you don’t stop speaking your home language and adopt English within your home and among your family and friends,” she says. “We may assume that we can write our ads in English and place them only on English platforms because as soon as someone is wealthy enough, they become English. The truth is, they don’t.”
This post was first published in the February 2015 issue of The Media magazine.
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