Friday, January 14, 2011

When ‘It’s Only A Joke’ Doesn’t Cut It

Like most black South Africans, what I know of advertising, is based primarily on Generations, through the goings on at New Horizons. Luckily for me though, I know a few people in advertising and know that though they have a shocking lack of scruples, what with their using their intelligence and talent to sell superfluous stuff to people, they’re not murderous & fornicating idiots in bad clothes. Well, come to think of it, the bad clothes still apply. Nevertheless, I’ve come to recognise that people in the ad game, more often than not, are incredibly funny and intelligent and that intelligence and humour comes across in razor sharp wit.

After four hard years of drinking and partying I finally got to walk across the stage of UCT’s Jameson Hall and get doffed on the head by a man in a funny dress, something I could’ve easily achieved for far cheaper on any given night in Cape Town’s Pink Strip, but either way it allows me to be vaguely intellectual about things I see, so let me have my say.

However, at the same time, being someone who at times has had to explain down somebody climbing onto their high horse of moral indignation at a perceived slight because of a joke, I find myself in a strange position. In writing this, I open myself to the very derisive glares and sneers that I myself give when I say, “it’s just a joke,” to those who just “don’t get it.”

1st For Woman’s ad campaigns have always had their tongues firmly placed in cheek, essentially you could sum them up to a slogan learnt by all girls in primary school, which is hardly ever truly disproven, ‘boys are stupid.’ However, there new ads, advertising a new service, a helpline for customers aren’t in that vein, and in and of themselves aren’t offensive. Having said that though, there was certainly still something about two of these ads that got to me. I went back and forth on how to describe how I felt; offended was far too strong a word, so I finally settled on, ‘uncomfortable,’ a description that fittingly I’m uncomfortable with, as it’s neither here nor there really.

In these ads, there are talking heads and the talking heads are black actors with a particular accent, the accent which the majority of black South Africans speak in, from maids to political leaders. I hate to delve into the world of ‘deconstructing & decoding,’ but that’s exactly where I’m headed. Failing to see any other place where the humour in the advertisements lay, it would seem that the ‘humour’ in the adverts lay in the accents.

This is nothing new really, after providing us cellphone tools that we just could never live without such as the X-Ray Kit, for a mere R50* companies like 35050 also gave us the, ‘Madaaaam! MADAAAM! Yoouur fooone is riiiinging,’ ringtone, just to name one example amongst many, for which the ‘humour’ was the accent.

In and of themselves, beyond their banal quality, there’s nothing offensive in these attempts at humour. However, the subtext, that there’s something funny about the accent of black South Africans trying their utmost to wrap their tongues around a foreign language. An accent that is in no way in indicator of how educated or intelligent (two things which are not related) someone is, is where I have to say – and here I go again – I’m uncomfortable.

What this particular brand of humour seems to do is to carry on a rich and long tradition in Western entertainment. From the use of blackface in early 20th century entertainment, to Prissy & Mammy, in ‘Gone With The Wind,’ right through to these ads, there is a single thick vein that connects them all, though obviously as the years have passed it’s far more subtle. Today, instead of the overt caricature being in front of us to laugh at, the caricature is now hidden behind a flimsy façade, and represented through the accent.

One of course would not be incorrect to point out that it’s not just black South Africans which are pilloried in this way, Afrikaners, Cape Coloureds, Durban Indians and just about any other group also come in for their share of roasting. The very concerns and reservations that I have regarding the use black people as figures of humour could and have been expressed by any of these groups.

I deliberately opened this blog with a race-based joke, or attempted joke even. I have no issue with jokes about race, in fact having laughed at jokes about paedophilia, rape and a multitude of other ‘taboo’ topics, I’m the last person to take umbrage at a joke about race. However, if a joke is going to go down that route, it’d better be damned good, and these ads are nothing of the sort. They resort to a cheap tactic knowing that out there, the Anneline Botes’ and Steve Hofmeyrs and will be able to have a good cackle, all because “it’s just a joke.”

As I said at the outset, advertising people are not stupid, and they wouldn’t use this kind of ‘humour’ if they knew that it would turn-off the majority of their prospective customers. The ugly fact is this, it’s not only the Anneline Botes’ and Steve Hofmeyrs who laugh at these ads, it’s you’re everyday South African, be they ‘African’ or not who does and therein lies the real problem. Our laughter shows an ugly attitude within us. An attitude that feels that if your English, even if it’s not your first language, is somehow ‘less than,’ then you yourself are less than and are fair game for a cheap laugh.

Of course I may be wrong, it may ‘just be a joke,’ and I’m ‘overthinking it.’ But hey, I was doffed on the head by that dude in the funny dress, and one of the few things that did sink in during those four years is that, to put it simply, sometimes, despite whatever may be on the surface, things are not as they seem. Frankly though, you don’t need a piece of paper from a guy in a funny dress and hat to know that. I may be wrong, but I don’t think so.

*And a subscription charge of R5000 every other minute.


  1. A very well written blog piece. Hope the link gets retweeted by everyone and that many, many people read this.

  2. Oh this is so brilliant. You summed up a point I've been trying to make to black people who make fun of other blacks' grammatical errors. Fluency in English has absolutely no relation to intelligence or worth, it's so frustrating that black South Africans have started to stake their self-esteem on something as unrelated as their accent.

    Might I add, we're also the first to swoon over French (preferably from France not Africa), Spanish and other exotic accents. We assume people who 'break uGeorge' in those accents are tres sophisticated! Silly.

  3. Great piece... and a good point to have made.
    We need to think harder about things put before us sometimes