Brand Culture: On parody & Nando’s
by DK Badenhorst (@BrandCultureSA) Parody is an interesting feature in the face of literature and culture and, as with like most cultural concepts, it’s difficult to throw hard and fast borders around it. We all know it when we see it but even someone like parody artist, Weird Al Yankovic, sometimes creates pieces of work that simply replace the words of the original to make an entirely new narrative.
It’s not strictly a parody, which should in some way talk to the essence of the original piece. Take, for instance, Yankovic’s remake, Eat It, which really just encourages listeners to eat anything, while Michael Jackson’s Beat It is centred more on the king of pop’s take on street gangs. The former is in no way commentary on the latter.
A useful function
A good example of parody is Key of Awesome’s take on Lorde’s Royals. The original describes middle-class life in New Zealand as sidelined, boring and even “torn up”. The parody comments that Lorde is in no way subject to this life, making a fair income off her music and that she may even be seen with Jay Z. While this commentary might not be fair, we can see how it addresses something that Lorde has even explained on radio —that her no. 1 hit at the time wasn’t about her own life at all.
That aside, if we look at parody then, it serves a useful function. Like the jester, it’s the fool who can address the elephant in the room. Jesters hide behind comedy, which allows them to speak over the tyranny of power. They, however, are no buffoon and use language skillfully to navigate the perils of the joke potentially not landing, rendering their defence useless.
Nando’s More South African Flavour
So, let’s then look at a much-written-about commercial that recently hit our computer screens. On Monday, 3 September 2018, Nando’s launched Afro-tising/More South African Flavour. Its formula is simple but effective — take the dramatic imagery that’s become dominant in South African advertising and call it out for what it is.
Guinness ‘Made Of Black’ from Radford Music on Vimeo.
Since 2015, when Guinness launched the Made of Black ad, this treatment has become more and more prevalent and, over the years, very little has changed in the visual language. This is why Nando’s can now, in 2018, call the tropes out by name. What’s curious about it is that the mechanic at work is something we very often see when people call signs out and disregard their meaning in order to undermine the symbol. A comment such as “Just because your shoes has three stripes on it doesn’t mean you’re original” is an effort to discredit the symbolism and undermine the statement the brand makes. And, in a way, that’s what the fast-food chicken brand is doing.
What makes Nando’s critique of the symbolism different to someone’s opinion of adidas is that the signifier-meaning relationship is different in the case of adidas.
What do I mean when I say that? The ads in question all borrow language from the global phenomenon of Afrofuturism. It’s an enormous cultural movement that seems to be bigger than any particular celebrity. Many celebrities take part and blockbusters such as Black Panther fit in, but none may individually be seen as the vanguard of a movement that stretches far into the future and reaches deep into history. It simultaneously articulates the past and the future in a present day where technology and our environment are evolving faster than our symbolism can keep up with.
So, if we had to think back to the role of the jester, what does Nando’s call out? What is the elephant in the room? It’s this connection between signifier and meaning that’s been weakened.
The smoke bombs got their original meaning from war as part-camouflage but largely as a signaling tool to either call for reinforcement or extraction. It’s been adopted into the sports spectator world, performance art and now Afrofuturism, and has an interesting way of combining combat with togetherness. Smoke bombs seem to appear when the representative is speaking on behalf of others — be it during demonstration, sporting events or even art.
Steeped in symbolism
The cathode ray tube TVs, stacked and burning, are also steeped in symbolism. The stacked TVs made its first debut in store windows and quickly became a symbol of consumerism: the now-nostalgic image of people watching a sporting event on the same stack of TVs in the shop window, the experience allowing you a taste of ownership in as much as you were willing to stand in the cold. The CRT screen also has links to Orwell’s 1984 dystopian sci-fi novel as the ears and eyes of Big Brother and it’s this meaning that Apple leveraged to bring the idea of ‘free thinking’ to life in its commercial named after the book. CRT screens seem to be a symbol of Big Brother, The Man or subversive forces that funnels our mind into a single direction.
Here we’re just touching on the web of meaning that lurks beneath the surface of any signifier when seen in its context. It’s by no means a comprehensive understanding of the symbolism but it serves to illustrate their complexity and how, when we stack these symbols on top of each other, the narrative and symbolism become even richer.
How much of this meaning or intent was transferred to the commercials in question? Did the burning TVs bring with them the full weight of the original symbol? Or is it simply, as the TVC states, “how we sell things these days?” The growing gap between what we show and what we mean has allowed for a bit of room into which Nando’s could launch its parody.
Not necessarily negative
Being parodied isn’t, however, necessarily negative; Jackson is said to have enjoyed Yankovic’s work. And beyond pop music, it can tackle serious issues and stands to bring a human face to concepts and ideas that could otherwise be difficult to address or shed light on. What’s important, though, is to understand what the parody’s trying to do.
In our case, it’s firstly important to acknowledge that the ads that leverage the visual language of Afrofuturism are impressive to watch; indeed, they can be watched over and over again. The language is compelling and impressive, and we should engage with it and understand it. But it does flirt with a cultural movement that might be articulating things that stands beyond the purview of the brands in question. Are they really repositioning to embrace the meaning of the language they’re using? Or, a more-constructive question: how can these brands credibly take part in the bigger shift at work?
Not too long ago, we had all sorts of brands claiming that something ‘must fall’. It took away from the original movement and it made for a clumsy brand message, but the phrase was popular and on the tip of everyone’s tongue and it seemed like a good idea. The language of Afrofuturism is visually more complex than the razor-sharp message of the Fees Must Fall movement; the principle, however, remains the same — symbolic imitation doesn’t guarantee cultural relevance.
So how do we ensure cultural relevance and why should we bother?
While this is a relatively big question, I would like to touch on a few ideas. First, we need to appreciate and understand the cultural meaning of the space we’re planning to operate in. Semiotics has proven to be one of the more-useful tools in the toolbox of strategy and cultural insight, and sheds light on the connection between a signifier and the meaning just below the surface. It allows us insight into the world of consumers in a way that they often struggle to articulate. While someone can tell you, “I like Superman because he is strong”, cultural insight tells you why strength is valued and why we even have superheroes. From this viewpoint, it’s easy to see how, if you move from trying to look like Superman, you’ll instead try to tap into the real need for heroism and potentially address a deeper desire.
The ultimate goal is to discover the narrative that underpins the meaning in order to create brands and brand values that reflect desires, aspirations and hopes of the future, rather than simply what the present looks like.
I’m sure there’s no malice behind the Nando’s ad. The piece is a perfect representation of who the brand is and echoes the long relationship it shares with South Africans. Over the years, it’s taken aim at politicians, xenophobes and dictators. This lighthearted parody is also refreshing in a time where the news almost satirises itself on a daily basis. It’s innocent and fun and uplifting and, if anything, it will make us think twice before reaching for the face paint and urge us to dig a bit deeper and find a connection where it matters.
- #Campaigns: More South African flavour with Nando’s
- #CampaignRadar: Nando’s hilarious Afrofuturism dig
DK Badenhorst (@BrandCultureSA) brings cultural context and long-term trend insights to brand communication through cultural insight and semiotics. He is back to contributing the monthly “Brand Culture” column, exploring the value and meaning interaction between brands and society, to MarkLives.com.
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