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Culture, Reality


by Brandon Edmonds / 30.08.2010

We like our chips. Almost R2 billion of the almost R5 billion South African snack industry falls to those salty little heart-stoppers. This is certainly beer, convenience and absent health-literacy related. Quick and cheap is the real ubuntu. The commonest common denominator. But that kind of out-sized market share is a throbbing red dot on the multi-national scanner. So it’s no surprise that Pepsico, the colossus bested by Coke in the great cola wars of the 80s, bought half of Simba (for a laughable $55million) in the late 90s, through its Frito-lay subsidiary.

That initial stake has since swollen to total ownership. Smart move since well over a quarter of all crisps sold locally goes to the lion. Interestingly, most of the chips market (a massive 60%) goes to “unbranded bulk packs” sold informally on our streets. Proving the country remains at a level of consumption largely immune to the lure of advertising. It had to be chips rather than soda for Pepsi since Coke has an all-conquering partnership with SAB breweries – meaning immense local distribution chains stretching from bare-knuckle townships to glitzy suburban malls.

Acquiring Simba was part of a global Pepsico push to ‘buy dominant regional potato-crisp makers’ and included Walkers in the UK and Sabritas in Mexico. Pepsico knows we like chips. And we’ll go on liking chips until the array of sedentary home leisure options (video-games, TV, Facebook) changes from sitting still and staring to getting up and doing. No sign of that just yet. Besides, hanging out and reaching for industrially produced slivers of be-salted carbs go together. They just do. If you can’t be the thing everybody’s drinking, be the thing that makes us want to drink. Salty snacks. Pepsico now dominates the global chip market. It’s rival Coke doesn’t.

Simba Chicken Walkie-Talkie chips

We’re a pretty important salted crisp market for Pepsico – 9th biggest on the planet ahead of both China and Australia. How’s Simba doing locally? Who can say? Its books aren’t ‘open to public scrutiny’ and actual figures remain an industry mystery. What we do know is that locally 30% of children are obese – the flipside of the kind of rampant malnutrition germane to a developing economy. Chips, fairly cheap, high in fat, low in fibre, aren’t helping. Though childhood obesity isn’t on a par with Aids as a public health concern, it’s getting there. Simba obviously wants to outrun any link between snacks and poor health – the best way to do that is to seem like a national treasure. A brand committed to local values. Benignly part of the scenery. An innocent aspect of our everyday lives.

Bringing us (with the glib inevitability of a press release) to the current ‘Lekker Flavour’ campaign. Chips as ‘freedom fries’ – patriotic markers of belonging. Chips as real time cellphone snaps of localness. Chips as media made South African signifiers. Chips as chips off the old nationalist block. Nice try. Is anyone feeling it?

It’s way too slick for starters. The ‘creative team’ behind the campaign haven’t let up and allowed the dough to rise. Everything is flattened by promotional intensity. You get the impression of a closed fist battering your complacency. The TV ad campaign was deadeningly about technique over substance. There’s an affectless digital quickness to the imagery. There’s nothing local about it. It has the airless mediation of a coordinated campaign. It never for a second spills beyond the controlled boundary of ‘broadcast air-time’ into our daily social reality. It has nothing to do with us, and the more it tries to seem ‘local and lekker’ – the harder it seems to be trying, and the more off-putting it becomes. It is the branding equivalent of American tourists speaking Afrikaans and pronouncing local names. They get the gist wrong. The consonants don’t drag enough. It doesn’t sound right.

See them all here.

Trevor ‘could I be more exposed?’ Noah yabbers in a flop sweat while the civilian hoping their ‘lekker flavour’ surpasses all comers has to listen to his overblown and irrelevant take on the origins of their particular recipe. The ad makes Noah talk at the contestants rather than listen to them. Their own everyday biographies are ignored for a flurry of empty ad-speak signifying nothing. It’s symptomatic of the misjudged priorities of the campaign. And a perfect metaphor for the modus operandi of a big time snack brand puppet-mastered by a giant American multinational: talk at the consumer loudly, quickly and often enough – and they’ll obey.

Simba Vetkoek and Polony

Knowing the private corporate and pubic health backdrop behind the campaign makes it hard to take anyway. It’s bullshit. Mahala won’t be joining what Simba shamelessly calls ‘The Mzansi Flavour Movement’ anytime soon. And the flavours, which is what matters most, are largely disappointing. Even after a national competition process apparently taking over 180 000 entrants. We had an office tasting of the four finalists – and the results amounted to shared disappointment.

You’d think ‘Vetkoek & Polony’ would be perfect – that doughy give meeting savoury meatiness – but no. It’s bad. ‘Toxic pink,’ someone said. Like cardboard. Like wet chalk. Like the sky above a concentration camp. Bad. ‘Snoek & Atchar’ is a whole lot better. Tart and piquant. But no advance beyond Fruit & Chutney. Things plummet dizzyingly with ‘Walkie Talkie Chicken’. Take unwashed curtains hanging up for decades in a coastal bed & breakfast. Liquidize them along with used hay, pelican droppings, and danced on sawdust – then squirt the mess on an unsuspecting chip. Close. The winner ought to be Monray Sackanary’s ‘Masala Steak Gatsby’ – for its rounded spicy kick and good beefy undertone.

But the winner will be Simba (and Pepsico) if – on buying any of these fraudulent calibrated bags of salted fat and oil – you imagine that you’re doing anything remotely good for you (or your country). Have a naartjie instead.

Simba Snoek and Atchar

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