Grilled Chicken Politics

I am writing this from Cape Town, South Africa, where it took me some time to load the 53 second Youtube video of the latest Nando’s ad (above), so I am not sure how “it is going viral” as the local press suggests. Though viral here also means 300,000 people viewed it on online. Nando’s is the South African fast food chain that makes Portugues-style chicken. They have  “global” ambitions–in the UK, US (in Washington D.C)., Australia, Dubai and a few African countries (I once ate at a Nando’s in Dakar). As for the ad, Nando’s claims it is a comment on xenophobia. For those who have or can’t watch it online, it opens with scenes of black undocumented migrants crossing the country’s border while a voice-over says: “You know what’s wrong with South Africa? It’s all you foreigners.” The ad then cuts in quick succession to a series of stereotypes and references: Chinese (yes, offloading goods), Indians (trading), Kenyans (in running gear), Afrikaners (yes, a farmer with dog in front seat and black workers in the back), Zulus, Tswanas, and Sothos, etcetera. All these people, once we’re introduced to them, disappear in puffs of smoke. The only person who survives the puff-of-smoke effect is “a traditional Khoisan man” who, using expletives, says he’s not going anywhere because “you found us here.”South Africa’s public broadcaster, SABC, then announced it would not show the ad on any of its three channels. Satellite operator DStv and the country’s only private terrestrial channel ETV also announced they would do the same thing. This played well into Nando’s marketing strategy as its brand thrives on political controversy: Nando’s will sell more peri peri chicken.

It does not help that South Africans–remember the country where the media acts like they’re writing/reporting from Somalia and North Korea as political researcher Steven Friedman puts it so well–are now obsessed with saying everything is banned. So of course when the SABC–synonymous in the media and the suburbs with “ANC dictatorship”–clumsily announced its decision (its spokesman said the SABC was concerned “that the public might interpret [the ad] differently”), the papers insinuated that it was a “political” decision and that the ad was “banned.” (Curiously, DStv and ETV weren’t subject to the same judgment–it’s just good business to censor the ad.

Nando’s CEO went on about “freedom of expression” and “censorship,” though he did not remind the media that Nando’s also censors its own ads when it is not good for business.   Neverthelesss, you can still watch the ad online (that is if you can wait for it to download while in South Africa).

But what about the ad itself? The reporting here on the content of the ad has been very poor–to put it mildly.

I actually find the ad unfunny and problematic. It basically endorses, on the one hand, the white right-wing parliamentarian Pieter Mulder’s willful denial of South Africa’s violent history especially on land dispossession  and on the other hand it bolsters the similarly ahistorical and ethnocentric claims of coloured nationalists who are all “Khoisan” now (that category in itself is a 20th century construction since the two–Khoi and San–that make up “Khoisan” are separate, distinct peoples).

In the final analysis this is about Nando’s wanting attention for its brand, getting that attention. Nando’s wants to sell chicken and it pretends that it has good “politics,” though we know that politics goes only so far.

I then ask around the AIAC “office” for comments. Here’s an edited version of the conversation.

Melissa Levin: I totally agree with you. That’s how I read it too. That we are all ‘colonizers’ and the fight was one between groups of land invaders. In addition, it persists in buoying the nonsense about cultural identity, diversity, multiple groups making up the South African fabric–no majorities and minorities, blacks and whites, but Xhosas, Afrikaners, etcetera. “We are all minorities now.” The contest over the meaning and content of public life is quite brutal it seems.

Daniel Magaziner: Unfunny and problematic is putting it kindly. The ad traffics in the long disproved ’empty-land’ thesis on the early 20th century, which held that South Africa’s current residents–whether white or black–were conquerors, who had displaced the subcontinent’s legitimate inhabitants. If both whites and blacks were conquerors, than what right could Africans possibly have to cry foul at land dispossession and segregation? Bantu-speakers (the ad’s fast disappearing array of Zulus, Tswanas, Sothos, etcetera) had simply lost the great game of imperial conquest to the whites. Boo hoo. Let’s not even dwell on how the ad’s comparison between Kenya and Lesotho, Cameroon and ‘Zululand’ traffics in apartheid era claims that Bantu-speakers’ legitimate homes were in the Bantustans (including those supposedly pure ethnic enclaves beyond South Africa’s ‘white’ borders), just as whites were legitimate in their white republic. And the stereotypes, oh, the stereotypes. Although I enjoyed the running Kenyans, I found the the Boer in the bakkie with the dog in front and the workers in the back a little too real. Nando’s chicken is delicious; its historiography and social criticism less so.

Basia Lewandowska Cummings (@mishearance): It’s strange that they portray the ‘Khoisan’ guy at the end in some with a kind of hip hop style aggressive cool. Why make him swear? I suppose the only interesting thing the advert throws up, other than a brilliant array of stereotypes, some dubious looking chicken and a poke at xenophobia, is: whose place is it now to question social realities like xenophobia?

It’s interesting why Nando’s feel they can/should comment on it, and think that it’s a lucrative means of advertising their product. And if advertising will increasingly become a place to address these concerns, can we predict that it will continue to fall into such crude, stereotypical, de-contextualised ‘advert-myths’ like this one? Also, with a range of only 2 apparently ‘diverse’ styles of chicken their product isn’t even very diverse. 2 types of chicken is still only–using their own analogy–just black and white.

Herman Wasserman (@hwasser): I think there are various issues here that have become conflated in the somewhat predictable public outcry against ‘censorship’.

For one, there is the feeble attempt at humour that falls flat. I also find the ad unfunny–as a joke, the ad does not quite gel, perhaps because it takes itself too seriously. Then there is the ideology–problematic to say the least. The ad flattens out history, denies any possibility of asymmetrical distribution of visibility among competing cultural identities, and ignores the relationship between ethnicity and political and economic power. “We are all just foreigners here,” it tries to say, “so don’t come and make any claims to restitution or redress. If those people in Alexandra could just learn to laugh at themselves, they wouldn’t have gone and burnt immigrants alive.” But the lack of humour and problematic ideology aside, I do think the refusal to screen it was misguided. The SABC’s claim that it had ‘xenophobic undertones’ missed the point. It was meant to look like xenophobia, not hidden away underneath, but so exaggerated that the very possibility of xenophobia becomes impossible. By refusing to screen it, the TV channels bought into the current discourse about ‘media freedom under attack’ and lent gravitas to an ad that wouldn’t have attracted half the attention it has if it were allowed to disappear among the many other mediocre ads on television.

Mikko Kapanen (@mikmikko): Nando’s has always presented a moral conundrum to me: I like their vegetarian burger, but find their advertising very off-putting and this advert is perfectly in line with their TV advertising strategy. It has got practically no connection to the product they are selling, millions of Rands [the local currency] have been thrown into its production and it’s offensive. I am not even one of those people who are looking around for things to be offended by, but this just is. Just like probably every advert by Nando’s I have ever seen. I think textually these visuals have been analysed spot on here by others (empty-land etc.), but purely from a production point of view, I’d say that even in general this is a very typical South African TV advert. The advertising industry–having observed it in action especially in Cape Town–is very detached from the majority of South Africans, but they are too proud, stubborn or just unaware to admit it. I remember a friend who is an industry insider telling me how his white supervisor had told him with no irony or regret that in advertising “white is aspirational” and as a logical consequence of that they didn’t have to understand the Black cultures of South Africa while coming up with adverts to them. Many industry people also focus so hard on trying to win the TV Laurie (advertising award) meanwhile most radio adverts are pretty terrible regardless of the relative efficiency of that medium. No other country I have ever lived in has had such abundance of locally produced expensive looking TV adverts that effortfully try to connect the product and its potential consumers–and Nando’s is just one of the companies that have climbed on this ox-wagon.

Brett Davidson (@brettdav): Of course I’m sure that as long as people are discussing the ad, whether positively or negatively, Nando’s is happy.

Herman Wasserman: Yes, Brett, Nando’s might even be happier with the ad being ‘censored’ and gaining credibility online than having it screened on TV. But does this whole saga not also point to a certain failure of mainstream media, commercial or public, to engage their audiences in an informative, creative and entertaining manner in debates about race, culture and power? When these issues enter media debates, it is often done in such heavy-handed manner that audiences become fatigued and then the repressed racial tensions in those dreadful comments at the bottom of online news stories that we see everyday on South African based websites.

Lily Saint (@lollipopsantos): The manner by which people are eliminated (by a puff of smoke) is pure euphemism. Meant, I suppose, to recall various moments in South African history when different groups featured in the ad were targets and victims of brute violence, would the ad still have any claim to humor if people were shot dead by bullets instead of lamely evaporated into clouds of smoke? While there is certainly offense to be taken in the stereotypes and exclusions in this ad, the real problem as others have pointed out, is the erasure of actual histories of violence that continue to plague the present. By making light of these the ad wants to make consumerism the only identity that can unify people–the pun on “real South Africans love diversity” of course evokes national, ethnic and racial diversity, but more ominously speaks to the rhetoric of “choice” allowing us all to think we are free agents while keeping us spoon-fed capitalism.

Melissa Levin: On Brett’s earlier point. He is spot on. There is something important to be said about the multiple ways in which public space is increasingly privatized. Whether it is football teams that are owned by big business rather than supporters, or public parks that are sponsored by private companies, whether it is the roll-back of basic state services that are doled out to the well-connected or whatever. In this case it is a business that sells its product by both defining and giving meaning to the issues of the day. So public space is increasingly occupied by corporate soundbites. At the apparent end of history, social issues are addressed through buying a bag to end hunger, for instance, or eating ‘anti-xenophobic’ chicken. I cannot help myself but to carry on yelling about this and giving the chicken people more air-time, because I am all for the post-Nazi adage that suggests that the imperative of humanity is to be at home nowhere. That way, we make no claims above another. I am against the trite evocation of this theme that reinforces the politics of difference and the political imperative of being nice. The dominant exposition of the idea of culture transfers an idea of a categorical, immutable, static identity from the notion of race which we must no longer have an appetite for. But the claims are similar. Someone else has spoken of this process of trading race for culture as being neo-racist.

Kathryn Mathers: This discussion keeps making me think back to those SAB (the now multinational South African Breweries) adverts from the 1980s [and through the 1990s], you know, the perfect embodiments of South African cosmopolitan masculinity both black and white getting together in a bar for beer? I am pretty sure it was the 80s because I remember discussions about how they were filmed when black and white couldn’t drink in the same bar and how technology was used to paste together two separate but equal (sic) scenes. (There are also the post-apartheid versions like the Klippies “eish/met ys” romance.) I have always found those advertisements confusing since they were certainly utopic if you believed in a nonracial South Africa but they could not have been simply aspirational since it seemed pretty clear that the majority of potential SAB drinkers did not aspire to a nonracial South Africa. This discussion is making me wonder how these two advertisements are part of a long tradition in South African media that has less to do with erasure of violence past and present than with its displacement. By shifting the terms of racism/xenophobia rather than trying to erase them, which would be near to impossible, it makes it much easier to live with, making viewers/participants doubly implicated ultimately not just for the violence but for trying to hide it in plain site. I argue that this is a gesture typical of romanticized images of Africa in the US where the white savior is made possible not by the erasure of Africans but by their relegation to a backdrop or by the kind of move that Disney’s Animal Kingdom makes, which is not to ignore the social/political challenges of the continent but to bring one of the less disturbing ones forward, big game poaching, even in the context of an amusement park. Nando’s does not try to suggest that South Africans are not xenophobic–rather they show how everybody is xenophobic but we can still laugh about it so it doesn’t really matter, thereby displacing the problem without denying it, and making it  even more invisible than erasure would or could.

Tom Devriendt (@telamigo): The male voice-over is the “Voice of Reason,” holding the moral high ground: “This is your history. History is not how you live it.” Reason trumps experience. The advertising genius trumps the consumer. But a stereotypical hypocrite is hard to visualize in a one-second shot. So the soutpiel, not for the first time, is let off the hook. There’s no time for self-criticism in the ad world.

Herman Wasserman: Good point, Tom. Perhaps this points to the invisibility of white South African English normativity and supposed ideological neutrality.

Melissa Levin: To Tom and Herman, I thought the white couple in the fancy car that were referred to as Europeans are the souties? And ‘even the Afrikaner’ who disappears is clearly another category of identity.

Herman Wasserman: Melissa is right. Appropriately, the English white stereotypes in the ad are not in some ‘tribal’ gear but can fit in anywhere looking thoroughly modern as we know.

Tom Devriendt: That, or–how I read it–it is a generic reference to the tens of thousands Belgian, Dutch, German or English immigrants that have made South Africa their home over the last decade — “Bought this house in Clifton for a steal!”


15 thoughts on “Grilled Chicken Politics

  1. Aren’t y’all being too hard on a fried chicken ad? At least it takes on xenophobia from its own BUYOURCHICKEN! angle. If McDonalds ran something like this in Arizona or Alabama I’d be astonished in a good way. In the meantime, seen this one Sean? Captain Africa from, I would guess, the 1940s? New to me.

    • @Mike: That’s a link to the Nando’s ad above. From my conversations here it seems while most people love Nando’s chicken (I’ve had twice myself since being here so I am not hating on the chicken) , they barely tolerate some of the company/brand’s ads.

  2. While I feel you all have very valid points – I think you’ve fallen into the very trap that is currently choking our country.

    This is an advert for chicken. An advert which pokes at the currently high racial tensions of this country. To the point where a light-hearted ad by a fast-food chain has riled up so many people is just sick.

    Are we so sensitive about who we are that any mention to race is therefore racist and stereotypical ? Why should we constantly take ourselves so serious ?

    Looking at the painting of the Canadian Prime Minister, he didnt have a big freak out. He jokes, ” Everyone knows Im not a beagle person” or some such thing.

    People should really learn that life is not so black and white, and while you are getting offended by silly ads, the rest of the world is moving forward. More honestly and more happily.

    • The parallel to the picture of the Canadian prime minister (similar to The Spear) is interesting; he is portrayed in an avant garde painting, naked on a couch with a dog at his feet and the only official response (from the director of communications of the PM’s office) is: “we are not amused, the prime minister is a cat person”. Then again, the prime minister is a white male and an Anglo-Saxon Protestant to boot. The Spear controversey seems to say that the country is not ready to laugh at these things yet; that who you are is more the issue than what you say. Not a dull country though.

  3. Way too much huff and intellectual posturing over a tongue-in-cheek chicken ad. It’s not meant to be Foucault or some such. Don’t expect more from an ad agency than it is meant to deliver. Or maybe I’m just grumpy after a long week?

    • Absolutely right and no, I don’t think you’re just grumpy. All this hot-under-the-collar pseudo-intellectualism is a sure sign of many South Africans’ personal insecurities and muddled, partially repressed racism.

  4. Wow. The author devotes nearly 3000 words to a pedantic ideological assault on an ad for a fast food restaurant and cavases 3rd party opinion (equally humourless and self-important) to back it up with. The offending ad seems like nothing more than a light hearted take on xenophobia (in a country where illegal immigrants have been murdered) and race and identify (also complex and conflicted) and still gains the attention of the national broadcaster (which bans it) and extensive (outraged) on line verbiage. The Nando’s ads are provoctive and irreverant – the basis of pop culture. It is telling that the author responds predictably, giving the impression they see it as worthy of a deconstructionist PhD standard treatsie along the lines of Derida and Foucault . There is something to be said here about crushing a comic fly with a rhetorical sledge hammer – the joke is on you.

  5. Xenophobia didn’t go away in 2009. Foreign black nationals are getting murdered, raped, burnt-out, chased out, and beaten up all the time. Anyone who questions this, needs to get out more and just ask around. Perhaps the car guard outside Nando’s. This advert is just offensive to that fact, and jokes about with someone’s worst nightmare. When it comes to advertisers, I’m with Bill Hicks on this one…’Stop putting a dollar sign on every god damn thing on the planet!’ Especially the death of 63 people, and the displacement of tens of thousands. Suck a tailpipe Nando’s!..

  6. Love reading your blog/column as it hits things mainstream US media (even AA) will never touch and it also gives me insight into another world. Sadly, many of the issues are similar to issues AA’s face in the US….and I guess other Africans in the diaspora,

  7. Great article, it’s just that the bewildering diversity of points of view expressed here leave me unsure of where to begin situating my own response. I would suggest that in future you marshal a more homogeneous group of pundits; failing that, we might get something like real political debate, and who knows where that would lead?

  8. Agreed, it is a bad ad, but censoring it? Why is it less offensive to peddle financial and consumer products that are neither healthy nor affordable, nor do they make any meaningful contribution to society?

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