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What’s great about South African advertising?

July 14, 2009

Photo by =Tom= (flickr)

Photo by =Tom= (flickr)

What constitutes a great South African ad? Well, imagine African elephants being born out of eggs and wondering through the desert, the elder brother supporting the younger. Or, guys braaing on the roof of a New York apartment block while a friend delivers ice-cold Castles in celebration of the rugby. A man who places his bed on Castrol oil tins because he’s scared of the tokolosh. These are some of our best-loved and remembered local ads.

But why?

All of them are unlikely scenarios, that is, if you are not a local. The magic of this place, S’efrika is that it is such a multi-cultural melting pot, an interplay of first and third world that actually allows one to believe the sentiment of our country’s marketing line, that it’s “alive with possibilities”. Some of our finest advertising over the years has been uniquely South African — the fragile and ethereal stuff that bonds consumers to brands and creates a unique affinity that creeps into your heart. Our best ads are naturally, emotional ones. The saying goes that “by moving people, you move product”. If we look at iconic brands that have consistently played to the uniqueness of this country and its stories, many brands such as Volkswagen, Klipdrift, Vodacom, Castrol, Coke and Joko come to mind, to name but a few. They often tell stories that can be only told here, or if not, are executed in a typically South African way. This “way” gives one a sense of home, charm, familiarity and empathy or even pathos.

And then again, we make some of the worlds’ best ads that have not one drop of local stuff in it, but they are conceptualised by creative minds that have been formed, informed and influenced by the structure, chaos and even mythology of being part of both the old and new South Africa. The tension between our past and present is played out beautifully in Boet and Swaer getting a BEE partner, The Vodacom ads where the guy in the Leopard skin underpants gets himself into ongoing trouble and is “saved” by the older black observer calling for help. Vodacom did it again in the spoof of “the Gods must crazy” ad where the bokke’s ball falls out of the plane, like the original Coke bottle and lands on a Bushman’s head – and then they play rugby. “Met Eish” brilliantly and effortlessly toys with this historic friction where conflicting cultural groups misunderstandings of one another’s language actually brings the unlikely friends together. And not in a contrived way either. Volkswagen, obviously very close to my heart, has played with this “localness” in many different ways. There’s the old Volksie Bus ads with David Kramer and his red vellies.

Sarel van der Merwe who said that the old Passat in the eighties “stuck to the road like boerewors to a braai grid”. There’s the story of a young black girl who is brought up by her poor, widowed father during the struggle years and rewards his love by buying him a Polo. Or the young white Golf-driving yuppie (do they still use that word?) who helps this old blind black guy find his son, and as his “brailled” hand move across the VW logo, he smiles because he realises that only a VW driver would help some stranger this much. And then there’s the perennial story of the fractured relationship between a father and son and they take a road-trip in their Touareg to bring them together. Here the sheer haunting beauty of this country and its people create a relevant backdrop to the reconciliation. There’s a little magic moment in this ad where the teenage son looks longingly out the window at this young Malay girl and the unlikely and forbidden love in our country’s past, is hinted at. Talking about reconciliation, I think our ability to laugh at each other’s differences, quirks and foibles is what makes South Africa and it’s advertising so special.

To laugh at two ladies discussing Polka’s internet special in the “Se-ri-yas!” ad without causing offence, to the historic Mackhatini “Scotsman” in the “Much more munch ads” and more recently the Halls ad where our hero, an everyday African aunty, shouts out at a UFO that wants to steal her friend to “Voetsek!”. Similarly the latest “We’ve been having it” Vodacom ad pokes good-hearted fun at what could similarly be considered, a bit of an African continent tragedy. And then there’s Sun International’s Charlize ad that understands that even the most famous and celebrated of South Africans has our country in their soul and that there is no better place to reconnect with themselves, than to come home — obviously to Sun International. In fact Charlize herself summed it up when talking to Derek Watts “But you know what they say, you can take the girl out of the bush but you can never take the bush out of the girl.”

We are a country of whites in black skins (not “coconuts” – I hate that judgmental term) and blacks in white skins. We are Africans, all of us, but with wonderful differences that we have learnt to celebrate and laugh at. In our case it is certainly “art imitating life, imitating art”.

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