‘Race jokes’ in South African ads

In South Africa, repackaging dated colonial fears about race and sex are used to sell beer and to win an advertising award for being "different."

Screen grab from the Blink Stefanus ad.

South African advertising is known for its eagerness for political commentary; very little ends up being off-limits. Blink Stefanus, or BS Beer (the double meaning of the acronym: “bullshit” being an obvious choice) is no exception. In September this year the brand won a Pendoring Award, a local South African advertising award for TV and print campaigns in the Afrikaans language. The price rewarded the campaign for being crafty and different. The beer is not yet widely available, but seems to have some traction in white Afrikaans hipster circles. A few weeks after winning the award, Blink Stefanus released a video ad since removed from the internet.

The premise of the advert is obvious: it’s about race and sex (duh). It begins with a white woman, in her late thirties, looking into the camera. She has a baby in her arms, which is all covered in blankets (this doesn’t give the clue of the joke away at all). She speaks to us in an exaggerated Afrikaans accent:

My name is Mrs. Potgieter. I live here in Sandton. My husband Pieter is a pilot and he is not home very often. But now since I have had the baby I don’t feel so alone anymore. We didn’t think we were able to have children; my husband has had some problems in the past. But now, I think, you know, the Lord works in mysterious ways and now I’ve got a new baby. We named him after Pieter’s father Jasper Gerhardus. Pieter was a bit concerned, but I kept reassuring him maybe it takes a while to develop into their features so after a few months, you know, you could tell if he looks like the mommy or the daddy, but I think when he grows up and into his looks he’ll look like his father. [At this point, the camera zooms in on warthogs on the move.] Yes, I think he’s such a handsome boy. Look at the camera Jasper!

The punchline: the baby is black. And not too many kids named Jasper Gerhardus Potgieter in South Africa are black. You get the point.

Looks like the BS team wanted to be “different,” mixing it up with references to cuckolding/fears of white men’s impotency, and tired, old stereotypes about black virility. The advert speaks to the sexual fantasies that South Africans have about the “forbidden other,” and the continued attempts at denying those desires — even when presented with obvious evidence. But it also plays out apartheid-era propaganda about hypersexual black men, running about raping and impregnating helpless, hapless white women.

Welcome to the new South Africa, where a repackaging of dated colonial fears regarding race, sex, and reproduction can be used to sell beer–and win an award for being “different.”

We asked the man behind the BS beer himself to tell us why this was a winning strategy for selling beer.

To Stefanus, the video should to be viewed in the light of “its marketing philosophy ‘Drink BS, Talk BS.'” As a result, the video should be judged based on its intended meaning: as something “lighthearted and silly.” The crux of the joke and the BS is the secret affair that the woman has clearly had. For him, to suggest a connection between this video and the colonial habit of hypersexualizing the ‘black peril’ is not only oversensitive, it is outright silly (in the non-funny way).

For Stefanus, and many like him, there is no reason to politicize or ascribe additional layers of complication and race politics to a silly video-joke, which is built on a philosophy of tipsy talk and makes fun of something many drinkers identify with: bullshitting about erotic escapades. The joke (in that case) is about sex. Race’s only function in this amusing exercise is to make the sex bullshit visible. (Besides his apparent hyper-fertility, the advert does not attach any characteristics to the boy’s black father.)

But I’m going to have to call BS on this one. Do white guys in South Africa still need to use blackness to crack a sex joke for commercial gain? If all this is just a ‘nonpolitical, silly joke,’ why does so much still depend on race? To say it’s nothing but ‘Drink BS, Talk BS’ ignores those long years of drumming up fears over miscegenation. What is particularly interesting is that the child in the video does not look like it has a black father and a white mother — he is simply a black kid. The advert does not simply echo fears of miscegenation, but emphasizes the eventual erasure of white power: while daddy’s away, he’ll not only be replaced in bed (anyway, he already had problems), but replaced by the next generation — a generation he had nothing to do with begetting.

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