Is political correctness stifling creativity and humour in advertising?
The recent banning of a Windhoek beer ad featuring movie action man Gerard Butler inspired many a conversation. Some say it was harmless, just men in a bar being men. Others believe it was darker, and a fine example of toxic masculinity at play. GLENDA NEVILL asks the Advertising Regulatory Body and advertising agencies whether political correctness is taking the creativity and humour out of advertising.
The banning of the Windhoek beer ad by the Advertising Regulatory Board (ARB) resulted in “unprecedented” and “vitriolic” attacks on Twitter. This is true of other ads deemed racist, sexist, ageist or any other frequently offensive ‘ist’. It is also true that many ad campaigns are guilty of gender stereotyping, and that the advertising industry has time and again promised to address this ongoing issue.
“In every single industry event that I have attended in the last three years, there has been at least one speaker talking about challenging gender stereotyping in advertising, and how we need to be pro-active and forward thinking and push the boundaries,” says Gail Schimmel, CEO of the ARB. “But actually, when a decision is made that does exactly that, the industry seems to have forgotten all those heated promises that they made.”
The complaint about Windhoek read: “The advertisement featuring Gérard Butler is offensive. It belittles a man for requesting a lime slice with his beer. While this may seem funny to many, an equal or larger number of people enjoy citrus with their beer or cider – popularly linked with women having a lime or lemon slice with their cider. I understand the message that Windhoek beer is complete on its own; however, shaming or belittling people for their personal preferences is not okay. Rather try attract all customers instead of being stupidly restrictive and offending a whole range of potential customers. At least no-one gets a celebrity to insult my Heineken or Savannah with lemon or lime slice….”
In its ruling, the ARB focused on aspects of the ad the complainant did not mention, and that is gender stereotyping. She mentioned ‘belittling’ the man for his decision to ask for lemon/lime. But the ARB took it further in its ruling… is this not over-reach on the part of the ARB? It is the entrenchment of the role of men as having to behave in a certain way with which the Directorate takes issue. It is also the entrenchment of male behaviour that is bullying, and what has come to be labelled as ‘toxic masculinity’. The advertisement, rather than drawing attention to the purity of the taste of their product, paints a clear picture of an aspect of the target market; and that market is a stereotyped macho man who buckles to the pressure of his peers in order to fit in. This breaches the provisions of Clause 3.5 of Section II as read with the definitions.
“I do not believe that we over-reached the complaint,” Schimmel says. “This is an issue that the advertiser could raise on appeal if they believe it to be the case… Windhoek is now being appealed. It will be very interesting to see what happens. But the appeals exist to test the decisions.”
On the topic of stifling creativity, Schimmel says the ARB is “not playing to the tune of the overly woke”.
“But,” she adds, “there is a line between ‘woke’ and ‘overly woke’; and sometimes there are issues that we are all accepting but that aren’t, actually, okay… It’s the same thing that happens every time we see an ad with the woman washing the dishes while the man watches TV with his feet up. Nobody’s going to complain – but we’re teaching our kids something profoundly disturbing.”
Schimmel says regulator’s directorate always finds themselves in a no-win situation when things get controversial.
“I want you to imagine a world where advertisers can make offensive ads without fear of any repercussions. Do you want to live in that world? Do you want your children and grandchildren to live in that world?”
So we asked agency representatives a few questions:
Are South Africans ‘oversensitive’ or is our regulator oversensitive?
Where do we draw the line?
When do we cross the line?
What is the impact on marketers when an ad is banned?
And the agencies said…
Uyanda Manana, Managing Director of Conversation LAB (SA)
Clearly blatantly offensive ads without any merit or purpose should be called out. But what of ads that simply make some of us uncomfortable (due to their exposure of reality) or on the other hand make us laugh due to our long held (but not necessarily harmful) South African stereotypes. So where does it become offensive because it’s uncomfortable (albeit true) or offensive because we’re laughing at it (albeit home truths)? Who is the final arbiter of what we’re exposed to or not? And how do you decide who gets the final say?
The single complainant gets an ad banned (if I recall the Chicken Licken Big John ad was a single complainant) because it’s less risky and expedient to just ban a tricky ad than tackle the issues it raises – or acknowledge that only a handful out of millions of the audience seem offended. Or should the regulator assume the single complainant represents the majority and the rest of the complainant’s race, gender, religion, or class would, by default, be equally upset?
South Africa is hardly a homogenous society, and even within race and gender there is no commonality guaranteed on every issue, in every context. So then, in this area of grey, what baseline do you use to guide what’s offensive enough to warrant an outright ban in the public interest – or what should be left for the consumer to decide what’s in their own interest? An example is the Nando’s Where’s My Chips? ad with the big breasted blonde from way back in 2008 – one of my favourite Nando’s ads.
It was a great South African ad – both women were brilliantly cast -that I know many other women friends loved too, despite the obvious sexist overtones. But if it aired today, it would very likely be banned (as it was in Australia at the time) at the first whiff of protest. And the irony of that would be that despite being a woman not offended by the ad, it would be pulled off air on my behalf.
Natalie Neokorides, Creative Group Head, Boomtown
I feel that, as South Africans, we are all a bit oversensitive. But who can blame us, given our political history and the current global circumstances? We are fighting an invisible war (against a virus) that we have no control over. I think that when people feel powerless, they look for things that they can fight back against and control. Advertising is one of those things. Being able to have a say in whether or not an ad gets aired gives people a feeling of importance and significance – “My opinion matters and I can make a difference.”
Most ads that make people feel offended don’t do so intentionally. I think that we should draw the line when ads are intentionally offensive without good reason. And I think that we should draw the line in our agencies first. Test ads on people in the agency and see who gets offended. What’s offensive to one person is water off a duck’s back to another. But we shouldn’t stop taking calculated risks and pushing creative boundaries just because we are afraid to offend everyone.
I think we can cross the line if the offensiveness of the ad or idea has a bigger purpose. And by bigger purpose, I don’t mean just selling more stuff, I mean making a social statement that benefits people in some way or another, or intentionally starting a difficult conversation that needs to be had.
I think agencies are the most heavily affected scapegoats in these scenarios. There is a huge financial and reputational impact when ads are banned. Production costs do not get refunded and brands may pull their work from agencies in order to make a public cut from the ‘perpetrators’. All of this has a negative chain reaction on peoples’ lives. Perhaps overly sensitive people should consider the true cost of their complaints before they air them.
Grant Sithole, Executive Creative Director, FoxP2
Our regulator definitely doesn’t have an easy job because of how sensitive the world has become about certain issues while we are also becoming more relaxed in as many ways. I guess that’s why the regulating body needs to be as representative as possible to try to see things from as many angles as possible and I sincerely hope that we are not reacting and assuming that every single post calling for the pulling of an ad is sincere.
My instinct says we should react when there is mass uproar. Two guys who think they don’t like how we portray their football team cannot justify the pulling of a multimillion-rand campaign.
There are places that we all absolutely should know are no-go areas. It’s a fine line between spotting idiosyncrasies and drawing on them for inspiration, and making tasteless jokes about a group of people with a shared belief system. It’s definitely not easy.
The regulating body needs to understand how knee-jerk reactions will kill the flair that we are so famous for and replace it with the dancing black people we constantly threaten to become famous for. Because those ads are easy to make. But that’s not what advertisers want and it’s definitely not what the people want.
Nduduzo Ndlela, Creative Director and Johannesburg Studio Lead, RAPT Creative
Regulation without real dialogue and sound data is by in large a fruitless exercise. It serves no real purpose but to appease the opinions of a few. In turn, it places our regulator’s credibility into question and decisions don’t inspire public confidence.
It’s less about where we draw the line, but more about creating a paradigm shift. Methods of regulation cannot be set in stone. And conversations must be had on who should be responsible for the imposition of restraints in advertising.
It goes without saying that marketing that sows division, incites hate and discrimination under the guise of creativity or freedom of speech is the hard line in the sand. Such blatant acts will always call for mass condemnation and regulation.
Marketers will continue to be lost in a sea of sameness and redundancy. It’s important to remember that any piece of communication that provokes thought, and challenges the norm will be offensive to someone in one way or another.
Jason Stewart, co-founder of through-the-line HaveYouHeard
The vast majority of any countries’ population is generally not oversensitive and, when these types of issues are tested with them, they are more tolerant and understanding. Social media, however, creates a very different impression as it amplifies the voices of the very few (2% of those on Twitter). Just like one snowball can start an avalanche, so can a few expressions of outrage escalate to a number that scares the ‘bejeezers’ out of any brand team.
In saying this, 2020 was a threshold moment to really evaluate the impact of everything on everyone. The pendulum is swinging towards ensuring zero-harm and brands are expected to lead from the front. South Africa has to deal with many complex and harmful issues. Therefore, there is a sensitivity to diminishing issues that could perpetuate behaviours or perceptions that cause harm.
The line is ever moving as cultural and social taboos and norms shift. Jokes that were OK or PC last year are no longer acceptable today. Barack Obama opposed gay marriage less than a decade ago. It is very hard to define the line as the debate is around impact versus intent. South Africans have a great ability – possibly more so than most other nations – to laugh at themselves. However, this will shift over the next few years as the social justice movement from the US becomes more ingrained in our culture.
We cross the line when we knowingly cause damage. It is a brand’s responsibility to be aware of where culture and society’s values and expectations are at any given time. Unless it’s part of a brand/consumer DNA, we should always aim to make a positive impact on society: it’s what consumers expect today (for the moment).
Currently, banning an ad only prompts people to search out the content. This has caused books to become bestsellers and ads to garner troves of free, organic views. However, it can be costly to the brand and can potentially damage its reputation. It depends on the impact to the brand’s core market and how the brand navigates the moments after a ban – or getting lucky with some good strategic moves that are usually high risk and unpredictable at the time!
Kevin Power, Group Managing Director of Conversation LAB (UK)
At Conversation LAB we talk of ‘radical accountability’ and I think that applies here; the key question for all brand activity should be “Does it create brand equity?”. There are no brands that find themselves on the wrong side of a social justice issue that can say that they set out to build brand equity with the offending campaign. Many of these campaigns are just weak ads. The Windhoek Lager one is a case in point.
Alternatively, Nando’s is consistently provocative and derives enduring brand equity from their approach without being cancelled. Yes, Nando’s can create ads which are edgy and even campaigns that land on the wrong side of a social justice issue but mischief and provocation are core to their brand equity. They have earned the right to be risqué by creating genuinely smart concepts over the long term.
I liked this quote from Ahmed Tilly: “Stop making ads for your clients and start making ads for their clients.” If a brand believes that being found on the wrong side of a social justice issue is good for their clients, they won’t be clients for much longer.
Ingrid Louw is CEO for the Association of Alcohol Responsibility and Education (aware.org). For nine years prior, she fulfilled the position of CEO at Print & Digital Media South Africa. Before joining PDMSA, she worked as CFO for the National Electronic Media Institute of South Africa – a training institution established by the Department Of Communications which formed part of a government initiative in 1998. She has a Master of Business Administration (MBA) through Henley Business School.
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