Advertising has come a long way since jingles about cereal and housewives wrestling with Verimark vacuum cleaners. The standard, cookie-cutter formula of selling brands, perception or products with the ubiquity of white picket fences and nuclear families with pearly-toothed smiles gushing over washing powder just doesn’t quite cut it.
With limited airtime and competition over space, advertising doesn’t manipulate the unattainable anymore, it weaponises black rage to cause a stir.
Take the now infamous 2017 Dove advert: the Unilever giant distributed an advert of a black woman seemingly transformed as her cleaner, whiter self after using a Dove body-wash.
The racist undertones of the advert became a source of outrage and debate on social media. The recycled PR apology from the brand made its rounds and Dove still remains as prevalent as ever with the backlash barely making a dent in sales.
Another beauty brand, Nivea, was found guilty of the same pattern of symbolising whiteness as the aspiration through their Natural Fairness lotion advert in 2017.
In 2018, H&M made the only black child in their catalogue wear a ‘coolest monkey in the jungle’ sweater, alluding to the racist tropes of othering black people as wild animals.
Gucci’s recent 2019 advert featuring a white woman wearing a Jim Crow-type black jumper with exaggerated red lips seen in the blackface minstrel performances of the 1950s also utilised black outrage to stay relevant.
Gucci and Moncler did blackface. Burberry thinks a noose around the neck is fashionable. I’m starting to believe the fashion industry has an agenda this Black History Month pic.twitter.com/CSVuNhlpVe
— Joshua Chenault (@joshuachenault1) February 19, 2019
Each of these brands have released content perpetuating colourism, racism and a strong undercurrent of anti-blackness in a social climate that makes it difficult to believe the intention was anything but deliberate.
Brands feed on the black response to racist representations and with each validly outraged Tweet comes an increase in their chances of staying in the 24-hour news cycle without bearing the brunt of any real lasting ramifications.
Technology enables us to have conversations across borders instead of a one-dimensional, one-stream flow of information with zero participation at the end. Decades ago, adverts were simply funnelled down your throat with little to no input, critique or comment on how they were received other than if the product sold or not.
Decades ago, people of colour were subjected to racist misrepresentation in the media, depicted as voiceless, identity-less tropes without much say in how we wanted to see ourselves.
Now, we have platforms to shut down the careless narratives people who don’t look like us construct but that we need to realise that the freedom of expression has become a weapon in the arsenal of conglomerates.
Retweets, shares and likes are the currency of the digitised world. If your ideas aren’t going viral, they’re lost in a virtual sea of over-saturated content. Advertisers know this better than most.
The pattern in modern age advertising is to bet on riding the clout of trending on Twitter for all the wrong reasons.
As the old adage goes, “bad publicity is still publicity” and advertising seems to manipulate valid outrage at being marginalised as a way to stay in the limelight.
The problem with exploiting black rage for profit is that, even after centuries of colonialism and oppression, our rage isn’t an infinite resource. Monetising black rage is essentially free advertising but what it costs to the psyche of black people is a lot more.
There are tangible consequences to this: black rage has been a tool for our survival in a world that expects silence or submission from the historically and perpetually oppressed. Exhausting black rage by having to constantly fight for your humanity every time H&M wants their name in headlines is causing distraction and fatigue from what we should be really focused on.
Black rage is critically important, it is valid and it is the very thing that ensured the liberation of this country and the emancipated black identity from the constraints and skewed narratives of white hegemony.
The burden shouldn’t be on the marginalised to have to expend our rage to make neoliberal corporations recognise our humanity apart from what we spend or don’t spend. Black people don’t have to expend emotional labour doing free sensitivity training for brands that should know better.
Maybe originality is dead (and there is absolutely nothing about original about racism), but it’s time for a new stage of advertising where humanity is worth a bit more than a click-through rate.
FEATURED IMAGE: Busang Senne, student journalist at Wits Vuvuzela. Photo: File.
- Wits Vuvuzela, SLICE OF LIFE: I am the master of my fate, April 2019.
- Wits Vuvuzela, SLICE: A white student’s dilemma: Shut up or speak out?, April 2019.
- Wits Vuvuzela, SLICE OF LIFE: Umemulo: Coming of age in modern times, April 2019.