A remedy for ad racism?

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[Cape Town, South Africa]

Marketers, ad agencies, the media and even the Human Rights Commission and Gender Commission agreed to join a task force that the South African government is setting up to find ways of eliminating racism in advertising. A public hearing will be held in a year to assess the results.

The initiative is the result of a two-day parliamentary committee hearing in early November during which the ad business was castigated for its alleged unwillingness to place ads in media whose audience is black. The industry was also charged at the hearing with preferring white actors to black in TV commercials.

"We don't intend to legislate against racism in advertising," said Nkenke Kekana, the parliamentary committee's chairman. "The industry will be expected to find its own solutions."

Though agencies tended to close ranks against the charges, black-owned agencies are among the critics. "Ad agencies have found false, deceptive mechanisms to resist change within their own ranks," said Jannie Ngwale, chairman of The Agency for Advertising & Marketing, the biggest black-owned agency in South Africa.

Agencies are responding to pressure by the South African government to sell equity to black partners as a condition for winning accounts by setting up "token entities" with a black front behind which it was "business as usual," Mr. Ngwale said.

Apart from The Agency, only three of South Africa's top 20 shops have achieved the 26% black equity level considered the minimum to win government accounts. They are Omnicom-affiliated TBWA Hunt Lascaris, Publicis Groupe-affiliated Saatchi & Saatchi and Interpublic Group of Cos.-affiliated HerdBuoys McCann-Erickson, all Johannesburg. Three others-Interpublic-affiliated FCB South Africa, Grey Global Group-affiliated Grey and Omnicom-affiliated Network BBDO-have set up joint ventures with black partners. TBWA rushed through the sale of a 26% stake to a black-owned investment company just in time to qualify for the huge SA Tourism account for the state-owned tourist promotion body.

The hearings were a response to complaints by black-targeted radio stations that they don't get their fair share of advertising expenditures because the agencies who buy media are staffed mainly by whites who don't understand or consume "black" media. Mr. Kekana complained in the legislature some months ago about "lily-white" ad agencies whose media planners are "22-year-old white girls who live in Sandton [an upmarket mainly white Johannesburg suburb] and watch `Ally McBeal."'

Representatives from the local Association of Advertising Agencies told those at the hearing about the ad group's attempt to change the racial mix of agency staff in the country, but its target of raising the proportion of black staffers from the current level of 31% to 40% by 2004 was rejected by one member of the parliamentary committee as "unacceptable."

In the U.S., the American Association of Advertising Agencies has tracked multicultural employment at its 100 largest agency members since 1995. It says that after five years of steady growth, the proportion of multicultural staffers has reached a plateau at 16.5%, although 28.6% of the U.S. population is made up of ethnic minorities.

In South Africa, the result of this racial imbalance, in a country where 88% of the population is black, tends to be a white bias in the ads. William Bird, director of the Media Monitoring Project, an independent body funded by the Ford Foundation, said "If advertising is a window on society, that society cannot in any sense be South Africa."

Ads try to appeal to both blacks and whites. One example is a spot that is part of a popular long-running campaign by Network BBDO for Castrol motor oil. The spot, set at a rural filling station at the edge of the Kalahari Desert, shows two white cronies teasing their black friend about his belief in tokoloshes, tiny evil spirits who attack their victims at night. But at bedtime, it's one of the equally superstitious white guys who leaps onto a bed that's balanced on four Castrol cans to keep him out of the reach of tokoloshes.

But there are still issues. After monitoring a single week's TV advertising across the four major channels, the MMP found that more than 80% of the voice-overs, which the MMP calls "the final indicator of authority in an ad," and half of the main actors were white. (Voice-overs were identified by what the group claimed are fairly distinctive differences in accent that are common among the race groups.)

Observers have noted, however, that while the advertising may not reflect the racial balance of the country, it comes close to reflecting the balance of economic power. Seven years after Nelson Mandela's African National Congress became the first majority government of this formerly white-ruled country, whites still account for 47% of consumer spending but just 12% of the population.

An analysis of media placement by the Media Directors Circle shows that 69% of the audience reached on all TV stations is black. The figure is 65% for the 10 biggest radio stations, measured by advertising revenue, and 60% for the top 10 biggest daily newspapers.

Shaken as the industry was by the depth of feeling on the subject, the hearings were "a wake-up call," according to FCB Chairman Neil van der Weele. "We were too complacent. A lot of good will come out of this."

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