by DK Badenhorst (@BrandCultureSA) The latest Santam TV ad (“One of a kind”) seems to have found a warm space in the hearts of South Africa. This is despite showing how people talk about us behind our back, discussing not necessarily what makes us good but what makes us different or unique.
And, to be honest, the qualities listed range from good (‘beaches’ and ‘women’) and neutral (“they call a fire a ‘chop & dop’”) to bad (crime and energy shortage). Nevertheless, the ad has warmed South African hearts and made people proud to be South African.
It seems odd. Why do we panic when we hear about a potential power grid collapse but feel great when foreigners say “they call it load shedding”. Why do we lament our security issues and hate how communities are driven apart by walls yet our eyes light up when foreigners can’t figure out whether it is to keep something in or out? (In reality, the answer is both.)
A peculiar patriotism
South Africa has a peculiar patriotism, one that’s almost militant. Blog posts confessing an expat’s regrets in leaving and their longing for the sunshine and the manicured lawns get sent around via social media years after they’re first posted — I’ve been receiving a particular one for a few years now.
In the same way, people who claim that they’ve defended the country either by putting a whiny expat in his or her place or by arguing the case for our country is about as close as the average person gets to being a national hero.
It’s idealism at its best and it opposes materialism. I don’t mean materialism in the sense of ‘things are all that matter’; rather, that we can understand the world through our experience, that we should live from our experience up, instead of from our ideas down.
SA patriotism is idealistic in that it has decided that SA is the best and, no matter what evidence is presented, it shall be believed that SA is the best and it shall be defended at all cost. Our hopes inform our experience, not the other way around.
What is the right question?
However, the question is never: “Why are people being so irrational?” That is almost certainly the wrong question. It is: “In which world view is that a rational thing to do?” This is the job of cultural intelligence, not seeing through someone else’s eyes but rather thinking with someone else’s mind — seeing the seemingly irrational as rational.
In order to understand the reason that this Santam ad has received so much traction, despite kicking us in the shins, it’s important to wind back the clock.
If you close your eyes and listen to the cadence and the framework of the ad, it really is the language of the late nineties/early noughties. Thabo Mbeki’s “I am an African” speech might have kicked it off with a verbal montage of the things that make us African, the things that unite us despite (or because) of our differences; it declares that SA belongs to all who live in it and we all may claim the status of being African.
It was a beautiful time for SA. It was a great time to be an African and, more specifically, a South African. This particular speech (that is, compared to Martin Luther’s “I have a dream”) was presented by Mbeki, who at the time was vice president.
We could all still remember the late former president Nelson Mandela dancing with Springbok rugby captain Francois Pienaar; we were still in a daze from not having a civil war; we were basking in the limelight — everyone was a bit euphoric we all got along so well.
Underneath it all, we were, in terms of evolutionary human development model Spiral Dynamics, running a blue engine. Spiral Dynamics is an interesting system that shows how societal values shifts as they are exposed to new ideas and changing circumstances. It’s not a system that offers right or wrong; instead, it provides a framework through which we may map society, figure out where we are and understand the world around us.
For simplicity’s sake, it’s easiest to think of “vMemes” as destinations along the spiral that stands for certain values.
Blue believes in bringing order and stability to all things. It values self-sacrifice for the greater good. In blue, we must control our impulses, enforce good principles and righteous living and, above all, we must look to a bigger plan that assigns all to our places. Blue is not rebellious; it surrenders to authority, and is very often driven by guilt. The Dutch Reformed Church (NGK) is very blue.
Mandela took over from the apartheid world, leading a group of people which was either moving from red into blue (newly liberated) or which was simply very blue (white middle class).
The dominant vMeme was blue. Guilt was a huge theme in SA. People were looking to leadership and to their religions to bring order. Group identity — belonging to something bigger — is important to blue, which is why we were hard at work creating a new collective identity: The Rainbow Nation.
This sense of belonging also explains why Mbeki’s speech was received so well: it gave us all the right to be part of something bigger, something with meaning and something that gave us our place in the order of things.
It is also important to note that SA leadership of that time (and the public sentiment) incorporated the green vMeme, too, in as much as people were united for a cause, and this cause or ideal overshadowed the blue hierarchy and authority.
For a very long time, SA was not a country of worldly pleasures; it was a place where everyone had to sacrifice something to be part of the bigger whole. It was an appropriate vMeme for a country that had just rescued itself from red chaos and blue oppression.
This SAA commercial demonstrates the era particularly well. It’s also the original cultural language that the Santam ad leverages – taking peculiarities and using it as signifiers for the group.
Blue looks for purpose and often finds it in a deity or an ideal. This commercial speaks to our looking to a bigger entity but not quite knowing what it is. It answers a question with a ‘because’ but we never hear the question.
It’s a completely illogical phrasing: because we do this and yet we do that. It’s nonsensical as a sentence structure but it makes perfect sense as an emotional declaration of unity under something bigger (in this case, our national flag).
In almost religious fashion, the commercial ends with children next to water, reflecting the deity in the sky.
A more lighthearted take on this is “Met Eish” that shows how our differences and misunderstandings make us unique. Klipdrift also taps into a truth that, no matter what we do, there is a bigger whole that we belong to that will always make things work out.
This take is also more green as it touches upon on a bigger ideal and how being together serves a purpose; it’s not simple obedience to a higher order.
A third one (and I’ll conclude my history lesson here) concerns people who do not know their place in society. Rule-breakers, nails that stand out or tall trees.
What makes this one interesting is that it would be taboo making fun of wealthy businessmen today; however, a decade or so ago, they were fair game and the conformist walked away the victor. Also interesting to note is how the hierarchy behind the airline counter jumps into action to put the rambunctious passenger in his place.
Advertising tradition slowed down
This tradition of advertising slowed down as South Africa started moving towards orange (think BMW, power suits and Wall Street). Ads of recent years, such as Amstel’s “The Boxer” and Bell’s “The Reader”, still have this element of community, sacrifice and duty but no longer to the end of serving a god or a bigger whole; it’s about self-improvement.
Self-sacrifice was on its way out; self-expression and achievement were on the horizon. A comic take on this may even be seen in this Bantam commercial, where the blue hierarchy is entertained for the sake of orange aspirations.
President since 2009, Jacob Zuma himself operates from a red place —coming from a long history of rebellion, fighting to be free from all constraints; unconcerned with consequences that may never come; and driven by the desire for honour, reputation and respect. He also appears to have surrounded himself with people who believe that same thing, collectively working towards a place where Zuma is respected and protected from shame.
Whereas blue fears guilt, red fears shame. Zuma seems more obsessed with shame (going after cartoonist Zapiro, or The Spear painting) than he does with guilt (explaining Nkandla).
Interestingly enough, I believe that the Economic Freedom Front (EFF) political party is much more in tune with middle-class South Africa: a blue mentality that uses uniform for solidarity and offsetting red jealousy.
A moral assertion
It then makes perfect sense to see EFF members slam their fists on the table, not trying to shame Zuma but to hold him accountable. “Pay back the money” is a moral assertion and even the repetitive nature of it is in line with blue’s inclination to recite truths handed down through hierarchy.
For the EFF, Nkandla is a guilt issue (while Malema himself is a rebellious red, he carries the mandate of a hierarchical blue following – something which he seems to be deeply aware of).
Mmusi Maimane of the Democratic Alliance (DA), who spoke about Zuma ‘getting away’ for far too long, also talks to guilt and what one ought to do. This is blue guilt addressing red chaos.
As an aside, it’s worth noting that Zuma can laugh because guilt does not translate in a red world. So, while we see a man being confronted with his negligent behavior, Zuma sees enemies trying to conquer and shame him.
Gradually turning SA red
Zuma is gradually turning SA red as violence picks up, MPs get thrown out of Parliament without discussion, and statues are threatened with being torn down (Arab Spring attitude) [and the outbreak of xenophobia again this week — ed-at-large].
Into this world, Santam and its ad agency, the King James Group, has introduced “One of a kind”. At this point, I’m hoping you’d be able to see why this ad is being defended by a large portion of South Africans.
The context of the ad highlights a bigger world, where people look at ‘us’ (the international world looking at us). This creates fertile soil for any ‘community-building’ concept. Foreigners are talking about us; they are saying things about us. This phrasing of, first, identifying ‘us’ as a separate entity and then giving us a unique label is a recipe for success in a blue world.
South Africa does have many such blue pockets — Afrikaans is an example of blue South African culture. The phrase “mense soos ons” (“people like us”) captures this sentiment really well; it’s a very warm Afrikaans phrase. Belonging and fitting in unlocks doors in blue communities and either respecting ‘mense soos ons’, or by sincerely trying to fit in, may make you the beneficiary of an almost biblical generosity (see “Met Eish”).
May be construed as insulting
The argument, however, is that the commercial may be construed as insulting.
Some hide their criticism behind a smiley face (“did they mention the president without matric J”, as seen on Twitter) in an attempt to point out the obvious while still not breaking rank (blue/orange). Others are blatantly stating how absurd it is that we are proud of “being unique”, reminding us of the picture with the bent fork: unique isn’t always better.
Yet being better is not the point. Community is. Being labeled as an entity is. The anecdotes that are being shared about our country are being shared in a fictional global world. But the audience is not intellectualising it. They are not thinking about it; they are being emotional about it – we feel united. We don’t want to think that electricity is a disaster; we want to feel as if there is hope – and the commercial ticks that box. The speed of the language, the kind smiling voice and the series of random but recognisable qualities put a smile on the viewer’s face.
It is also important to keep in mind who is talking here. Santam is an old, stable and reliable insurance company that has been around since the beginning of time [March 1918, to be exact — ed-at-large]. It is establishment; it orders the world; it sacrifices the now for future reward. It is a deeply blue company. Blue is stable and epitomises the description ‘salt of the earth’.
Loadshedding is no joke
The criticism that we should not laugh at loadshedding does have merit. SA does have an orange interest – the individualists, the mavericks and, in stereotypical terms, the business people. Loadshedding is no joke. It places a serious cap on growth, it dissuades investors and it makes us thankful for something every South African should (in the year 2015) be able to take for granted – we cannot be bedazzled by electricity if we want to call ourselves a modern country.
For orange, the loadshedding message should have been “chaos stimulates innovation” or even talking to wind farms and the solar projects in SA.
This particular commercial is, however, a blue message and is therefore a story of unity and community. Like the “Feed a child” commercial, the actual signifier (in that case a black child and, in this case, the term loadshedding) carries too much other meaning and gravitates away from the intended meaning of ‘unique quality’ to ‘something that is wrong with us’. Nevertheless, it is important to take the message for what it is – it’s not a harmful message; it’s one of solidarity.
In my reading, I came across a chilling phrase: “When conflicts break out within blue however, they are vicious because both sides know too much about how to hurt the others deeply. The brothers may never speak again and the Civil Wars are the least civil of all” (from “Spiral Dynamics” by Don Edward Beck and Christopher Cowan).
Reconsider where we are
It seems fitting to end the article with a quote — blue is one for scripture, after all. But it should prompt us to reconsider where we are.
Brands can play an important role in shifting moods, recontextualising a situation and creating language that moves the conversation of unity forward, rather than polarising our nation and driving people further apart.
What I find most revealing about the Santam ad is that, despite everything that is wrong, we South Africans seem to be more desperate for a national identity than we are for lower crime rates and a stable electricity supply. Or maybe we simply believe that a sense of unity and working together is the first step in solving all our other problems.
DK Badenhorst (@BrandCultureSA) is a cultural insight and semiotics consultant who brings cultural context and long-term trend insights to brand communication. He contributes the monthly “Brand Culture” column, exploring the value and meaning interaction between brands and society, to MarkLives.com.
— MarkLives’ round-up of top ad and media industry news and opinion in your mailbox every Monday and Thursday. Sign up here!