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JOHANNESBURG-Political advertising turned especially nasty in South Africa as campaigns entered the final stretch in a frenzy of stepped up efforts before the country's first all-race elections this week.

Nelson Mandela and his African National Congress party are still the clear favorites in the parliamentary election that marks an end to the apartheid era. But all three of the country's major parties took last-minute digs at each other in ads.

The ruling National Party led by President F.W. de Klerk picked up on current events and its call for some restrictions on voter eligibility. Using a police sketch of a murder and rape suspect, the ad stated: "Can you imagine the Cape[town] Strangler having the vote? The ANC and DP [Democratic Party] can." The campaign was by Optimum Marketing Communications, a division of Saatchi & Saatchi Klerk & Barrett.

A Democratic Party ad from the Jupiter Drawing Room showed a pig in a police hat with the headline: "This is what the left call them. This how the Nats treat them. No wonder there's no respect for law and order."

The ANC took aim at the National Party by showing profiles of Law and Order Minister Hernus Kriel with his nose growing longer in each of three photos. Suggesting that the authorities have been instigating black vs. black violence, the ad asks: "How much longer can he avoid telling the truth?" The ANC's agency is Applied Marketing & Communications, a unit of Hunt Lascaris TBWA.

Although TV advertising wasn't permitted, to level the playing field for less well-funded parties, the three major parties have spent more than $30 million on print, radio and outdoor in the past three months. Smaller parties have focused their attention on posters, created in-house, and various communication and education programs.

To cover all bases, the major parties played up the faces of their candidates in separate print campaigns because their photos will appear on ballots to simplify voting for the estimated 50% of the population that is illiterate.

The political situation calmed somewhat last week after the Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party agreed to participate in the election. Store shelves previously emptied by panic-stricken buyers were refilled, and some normality returned.

Meanwhile, some advertisers have marked the historic election with special messages.

Sales House, a retailer of men's, women's and children's clothing, heralds a new South Africa in a newspaper ad by Ogilvy & Mather Rightford Searle-Tripp & Makin. The ad shows dates of independence of other African countries under their flags, with April 1994 under South Africa's.

In a newspaper ad by McCann-Erickson, motor oil marketer Castrol marks the moment with a simple message written in honey-colored oil-"Reduce friction in South Africa"-on a white background.

Benetton is breaking a new outdoor and print campaign this week here with a racial tolerance theme. The ad, created by photographer Olivieri Toscani, shows the hands of a black athlete and a white athlete symbolically passing a baton.

Michelle McCarter in Rome contributed to this story.

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