(This article was originally published in The Star newspaper, Johannesburg on September 6, 2011.)
A Gautrain billboard along WilliamNicol Drive in the Johannesburg northern suburb of Bryanston once more got me thinking about advertising messages, their symbols and societal norms and values. The billboard message screams: “New African Time! Centurion to Sandton in 19 minutes”.
One of the contentious issues in media and communications discourse which straddles across several disciplines is the ideological or value judgement inherent in media content. The contention is that, whether they are conscious of it or not, workers in ideas such as academics, teachers, writers, journalists and other communications practitioners, bring their value judgements to bear in the exploits of their labour because they are social beings who have come to internalise some values and discarded others in the inherently contested process of social interaction.
Judgement need not necessarily be overt. It is often subtle, manifested perhaps in jest or flippancy in relation to particular events or phenomena. The advertising industry is more adept at this kind of communication than other areas of communications.
The regular thematic advertising output by fast food chicken franchise, Nandos, illustrates the engaging power that advertising messages exert on consumer decision-making. If the exploitation of these themes did not add any value to the fortunes of the Nandos’ brand or its revenues, the franchise would not bother to commission the advertisements.
It would equally not make sense if the advertisements did not reflect some connection between what Nandos rightly or wrongly believe exists between the social themes in question and the consumption of roasted chicken or the simple act of assuaging hunger.
A more appropriate example for purposes of a discussion on the value-laden subtitles implicit in advertising messages is t-shirt producer, Laugh it Off Promotions’ two-year legal battle (2003 – 2005) with Black Label brewer, South African Breweries (SAB). Laugh It Off substituted SAB’s slogan: “America’s lusty, lively beer, Carling Black Label beer, enjoyed by men around the world” with the commentary: “Black Labour White Guilt, Africa’s lusty lively exploitation since 1652, no regard given worldwide”.
Although the Constitutional Court ruled in Laugh it Off’s favour, finding neither infringement nor dilution on the Black Label brand, Judge Albie Sachs noted that Laugh it Off’s t-shirt campaign “was part of a genuine attempt to critique the status quo in our society” and added that large businesses and “their trademarks represent highly visible and immediately recognisable symbols of societal norms and values”.
Beyond the fact that Gautrain ferries passengers from Centurion to Sandton in 19 minutes, the message of its billboard is barely veiled. It confirms a centuries’ old stereotype about Africans’ inability to keep time, which is thought to be inherently genetic; for which a solution in the form of Gautrain has, happily, finally been found.
This stereotype is part of an avalanche of deliberate misrepresentations of Africa and the Africans which have been peddled by racists since the advent of the Atlantic slave trade. Its bold re-appearance as part of Gautrain communications messages illustrates racism’s abiding hold on our society. So, in addition to passengers, Gautrain is sadly an unwitting carrier of racist norms, value-producing mythologies and stereotypes.
In a country whose history has been defined largely by racism for more than 350 years, this should hardly be surprising. But for a public utility such as Gautrain to make itself an accomplice in the perpetuation of racist stereotypes is a tragic failure of judgement.
Some might argue that the message seeks to do no more than poke fun at the stereotype of African time. That would be fair enough. However, making fun of a racial stereotype without critically reflecting on its inherent assumptions has the consequence of perpetuating the stereotype.
This is to say nothing of the fact that Gautrain is not South Africa’s fastest mode of transport. Or that since it is Africa’s first and only existing rapid rail link, South Africa must, according to the logic, represent a privileged exception from the rest of the continent, suggesting that African time lives on elsewhere.
Hopefully Gautrain, a creature whose existence should on its own, put paid to rest racial stereotyping, will become a carrier of passengers and a new civilisation underpinned by appreciation of the equality and respect of all human beings. And so might its leadership spare us the insults of a billboard of an era gone by.
September 6, 2011
See this comment by a reader of The Star: http://www.iol.co.za/the-star/fine-time-for-humour-1.1136094#.UE42klGwefQ