Op-ed: Brands & the politics of representation
by Sizakele Marutlulle. Images aren’t neutral. They are potent, imbued with energy and intention to affect identity and alter behaviour. To think that in 2007 I wrote my MA thesis on this very topic, the politics of representation, and here we are, a decade and a bit later, and brands in the hands of unconscious custodians continue to delight and offend in equal measure.
Offending brands are only changing tack because they’ve been caught, not because, like the biblical Saul, they’ve found their conversion on the marketing ‘road to Damascus’ equivalent. What we’re being fed by Clicks, Unilever, Quaker Oats and others is done to stamp out the flames in the street, to protect brick and mortar, not to quell the fires raging in the hearts of the offended. The only way to ensure this change lasts is for all parties in the creative process to be held accountable, clients and creative partners alike. However, there’s no doubt that the big big buck does stop with the brand owner — who, at times (I know this from practice), may be deaf to the input of conscious creative partners.
Heart-warming and frustrating
It’s been heart-warming to see Unilever discontinue skin lightening cream in India (June 2020), Quaker Oats change Aunt Jemima branding (June 2020) and the band, Lady Antebellum, also undergo a name change (June 2020) — and frustrating when it then went on to display entitlement and disrespect (August 2020) against a black artist who’s been using by the same stage name for 20 years already. In April 2017, Pepsi peddled a reality star-turned-model as a #BlackLivesMatter movement ambassador, discounting her privilege and total misfit, and then said sorry. Gucci didn’t miss the party with its blackface ad and hasty faux apology (February 2019). D&G mocking Chinese culture demonstrated its short-sightedness as the Chinese consumer is a key contributor to its bottom line (December 2018). Chanel was also not immune to such bigotry (July 2017), and a sore point in South Africa to this day still is H&M’s monkey in the hood assault (November 2018).
We’ve also witnessed a plethora of big brands that ‘steal’ the creative IP of black creatives and, when caught, feign surprise or claim creative coincidence (October 2017).
I believe that the reckless appropriation of black culture deserves more than outrage from those consumers who’re black. Perhaps it’s time we stopped keeping count and started raging without our spending power.
All of this — and more — brings to mind the mighty James Baldwin who (speaking of America), said, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a state of rage almost, almost all of the time — and in one’s work.” Ditto for South Africa. Exhausting as it can be to fight the fight on every corner, the intersectionality of the black person’s oppression leaves us no alternative but to lug fire trucks on our backs.
Interventions worth exploring
So, as somone who dislikes the practice of admiring or describing problems ad infinitum, I offer the following as interventions worth exploring:
- When a brand falters, the CEO must march to the front — the CEO, not PR, must lead the mea culpa journey
- We have two ears for a reason: Don’t grand-stand or defend — listen more and speak less
- Don’t throw your team under the bus: As CEO/exec, don’t fire the junior — fix the organisational culture
- Discrimination has deep roots: The tendency for rogue brands to offend and then hire a diversity officer is a plaster on a gangrenous wound. These offences (not mistakes, as others call them) aren’t about (once-off) ‘diversity training ‘; they require (life-long) excavation and conscientisation. For example, Clicks has removed the offensive haircare product from its shelves yet still sells the carcinogenic Johnson & Johnson talc powder, which disproportionately affects more black females as they tend to be more-frequent adult users.
- Don’t just paint a house with a weak foundation: Don’t apply PR-able amendments — bring about lasting changes, even if this means stopping the train, to truly look into your organisation and bias-test every node of your business (eg recruitment and reward practices, procurement, supply chain, board appointments etc)
- Quick fixes are twice the trouble: Don’t do the easy fixes (R10 000 donation of sanitary towels, a cheque to an impoverished school etc) — unlock the core of discrimination and bias that’s built into your business
- We lead how we are: This is a time for ethical leadership — your personal values shine through your business
- Serve humans: After all, we’re consumers some of the times and are humans all of the time — stop selling (to consumers) and start serving (humans)
- What’s your purpose? Articulate and/or review your brand’s purpose — if your guiding light and North Star is devoid of substance and social impact, then go back to the drawing board
- Don’t be cheap; be sincere: Diversity isn’t a tag on to HR’s role — find and invest in specialists to craft an informed and enlightened pathway to your business sustainability and success
- Corporate citizenship is more than just 67 Blankets for Mandela Day and signing checks to support social causes — it’s about ensuring that your enterprise pivots on consciousness every moment, especially when no one’s watching
- The big bang: For the listed companies in SA, stock exchanges could create an Ethics Exchange and dock points from delinquent and harmful businesses/brands — don’t fine them but lower their BEE levels and limit chances of procuring from government (often the big spender in most territories) — only then will we see proper and true change
However outraged and offended we are, we limit our impact when we adopt violence as the official language to relay dismay and offence. Yes, it seeps from years of bottled frustration, but how does it get us to the mountaintop?
Ignorance is curable
SA has a glowing constitution, referenced by many across the world as something to learn from. A cornerstone of this is the premise that SA belongs to all who live in it. It gives credence to Nelson Mandela who said, among many other wisdoms, “Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another.” Brand leaders and owners aren’t exempt from this duty of not causing offence or harm; they must be the standard-bearers and, when they default to opportunistic capitalism, let the spirit of the constitution nudge them back to life.
Thankfully, ignorance is curable. Let’s all educate ourselves and each other.