Africa is a Country has written plenty in the past on problematic advertising, particularly that which rides on racial and sexist stereotypes, and tropes about the African continent. Invariably, the common thread that runs through many of these ads—especially the ones that ostensibly promote a social cause, like SAB’s victim-blaming ‘You Decide’ billboard or Woolworths’ black laborers-white consumers tribute to Nelson Mandela—is that the people who thought them up were incredibly lazy and uncreative.
Cape Town agency Ogilvy’s ad for a local NGO, Feed A Child South Africa, is yet another example of this phenomenon, which is why the agency was forced to withdraw the ad after an outcry. But, somehow, Ogilvy appears to believe all was well and that it was “controversy” that caused it to be withdrawn, not their own failings. Let me try to disabuse them of that notion.
In the ad, Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14 plays while a white woman is shown in different scenes treating a black child like a pampered dog: petting and feeding him while he rests on her lap; feeding him “treats” when he fetches her newspaper; letting him lick her fingers while she cooks. The choice of cast, which was no coincidence, inscribes South Africa’s racial dynamics into the ad’s message. The ad eventually ends with the pay-off line: “The average domestic dog eats better than millions of children. Help feed a starving child. SMS “child” to 40014 to donate R20.”
Unsurprisingly, the ad was widely panned as racist, an affront to the dignity of the boy made to play the role of a dog, and a perpetuation of racial stereotypes. Richard Poplak wrote in the Daily Maverick:
We come now, as we must, to the question of gaze: who is looking at the black boy/dog? Is this advert meant for, um, black people? I’m sure Feed A Child would be happy to include the black middle class in its donor demographic. But I suspect that the images are meant to shake and shock white folk from their torpor—to remind them that their lifestyles are not just unethical, but unsustainable and cruel. But by employing this element of racial trickery, by dangling the bait of the black boy, the advert is not undermining but reinforcing stereotypes—it is simply anotherimage of black subservience fed to whites who have gorged on them for generations.
There’s also something to be said about how the ad continues a mass media tradition of presenting black bodies as those most suited to denigration and abuse.
But to reduce the ad to a problem of racial stereotypes only is to let the supposedly creative folks over at Ogilvy off the hook for their laziness.
It’s their laziness that led them by the nose to the racial stereotypes. They mindlessly called on a common trope that plays the well being of black people off against the well being of dogs, rhino, elephant, or whatever animal white folks are said to care more about at that moment. As a rhetorical device, this trope can be powerful in the right hands. But, as responses to Feed A Child’s ad show, it can also be, to paraphrase writer Athambile Masola, as awkward and prone to misunderstanding as a supposedly liberal white person showing how liberal they are by attempting to rehash Trevor Noah jokes.
To examine the laziness more closely, let me begin by calling bullshit on the ad’s claim that the average domestic dog eats better than millions of children. Maybe they mean the average dog in a white household, given the disparities in household income by race.
The average South African household gets by on $930 per month, whereas the average white South African family earns $3,000—almost six times more than the average black household. Thus, assuming an even distribution of dogs per household, the average dog eats how the average South African household that owns it eats: poorly.
Even without assuming an even distribution of dogs across South African households, it’s safe to say that the well being of domestic dogs is inextricably linked to that of the household that owns it. This is enough for us to conclude that Ogilvy’s and Feed A Child’s claim is very likely untrue. The truth is that a dog in an average white household is sitting pretty, like its owners. And a dog in an average black household, despite whatever efforts its owners might put up, suffers the same indignities as the rest of the household, including frequent, often hidden hunger, particularly in the former apartheid-era “homelands”.
The laziness is also apparent in false dichotomy the ad establishes between the well being of hungry (black) children and the well being of animals as a category of thing well off (white) people spend money on and direct empathy towards. Why not rich (white) people’s own kids? In fact, I think the ad would have been more provocative if Ogilvy had applied their minds and played the well being of rich kids off against the well being of poor kids, Hunger Games style. That would have established the moral complicity of the wealthy in the hunger of poor children, and it would have done so without any of the unnecessary noise in the current version of the ad.
But, no. Instead, the minimum threshold Ogilvy and Feed A Child chose to establish for what is just and fair for the black child is the same treatment afforded a pampered dog, not the treatment the better off afford their own kids. Guaranteed, on the whole, they treat their kids better they do their dogs.
Thus the false dichotomy guaranteed from the start that Ogilvy would be made to withdraw the ad. There’s just no way to look at it that escapes the equivalence of black kids to dogs. Considering how much Feed A Child likely spent on it, Ogilvy might as well have added a disclaimer at the end: No child was fed through the making of this commercial.
The least Ogilvy can do at this stage is refund Feed A Child for the ad, or agree to create a new, better ad for free. If they accept payment for this withdrawn ad, they are stealing food from the mouths of children.
All of that said, South Africa does have a troubling history with Inja Yomlungu (The White Man’s Dog). That’s the title of a documentary written and directed by Sipho Singiswa. The documentary explores the disparate ways in which white people treat their dogs compared to how they treat black people, and how white people use dogs as a fear-instilling weapon against black people. Parts 1 and 2 of the documentary are available on YouTube.