Picture: 123RF
Picture: 123RF

As the MD of a women-led pan-African marketing, PR and digital agency, I experienced the now notorious Clicks advert as a deeply personal insult which exposed a number of faultlines in our society.

First, let me tell you my context. At Triple Eight, women occupy all senior and middle management positions. This was deliberate — reflective of the fact that 80% of global consumer purchase decisions are made by women, and a belief that women should occupy more leadership positions. It happened through years of deliberate investment in mentoring and developing women into positions as decision-makers.

So when news broke of the advert, which labelled white hair as "normal" and black hair as less than that, it sparked immediate outrage within our company.

There’s a long history here: as women, we face a daily assault of not fitting into a narrow image of perfect beauty, constructed to tell us we aren’t quite good enough. As black women, we face an extra onslaught of racially discriminatory narratives in which we’re portrayed as not normal, even though we live in a country where 80% of consumers are black.

Part of the reason this ad struck such a chord is because it was just the final straw in a lifetime of daily microaggressions black women face. Tshegofatso Mnguni, an account manager at Triple Eight, described the advert as "deeply hurtful and personal".

For many, the reaction was: how could anyone attuned to SA’s history and racial sensitivities have done this? Surely any woman of colour would have stopped immediately and said: "This is not right."

But the deeper question is, why do these things happen repeatedly? What must happen for real transformation to take place in the advertising and marketing industry?

To answer this, we need to take a critical look at brands and marketing agencies. We must ask to what extent there is meaningful diversity and inclusion within their teams. Sure, organisations are ticking the diversity box and describing themselves as "Level 1 BBBEE", but this doesn’t mean diverse voices are truly empowered, valued and heard. How many strategists, art directors and managers are black women with a real voice?

It doesn’t stop there. There also has to be a level of maturity and cultural understanding of SA’s historical narratives. People managing brands need to have the maturity and sensitivity to identify these issues, and then the strength of conviction to raise them.

We need more active advocacy around the concept of a natural African beauty

But what if the adverts were created by a diverse team? This is where the matter of unconscious bias must be addressed. To remedy this, we need more active advocacy around the concept of a natural African beauty, free from colonialised apartheid ideals.

The outrage we are experiencing has to be converted into more productive awareness, and an open discussion about the beauty industry.

We should channel the energy into questioning the wording on product labels — what its purpose is, and how it makes us feel. We need to examine the areas in our cosmetics marketing where the risk of causing harm is greatest. Through these discussions, we can push for changes that will respect everyone.

This matter goes beyond our borders too. As an agency that works across eight African countries, we are constantly reminding clients that in any market, there is a need for cultural and contextual understanding and connection with the audience. Yet many marketers still consider Africa a single region.

It’s a growing risk: many multinational companies are moving towards a model of developing concepts globally, then executing them locally. But as in the example of H&M, which was flamed for a racially insensitive advert last year, this plug-and-play approach can open companies to the risk of alienating consumers and, in extreme cases, insulting them.

We live in a vastly different world to that of our parents: new-generation consumers are increasingly assessing how they spend their money, and choose to select brands according to what they stand for and how they affect society.

It means companies need to make active transformation a priority, respecting the consumers who enable their existence. Maybe a good start would be to mirror the demographics of their customer base within their organisations.

  • Modi is an actuary, founder and MD of Triple Eight, a socially conscious marketing, PR and digital agency which was the 2019 FM AdFocus Agency of the Year


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