Flaming Whiteyby Brandon Edmonds, image by Jason Bronkhorst / 02.12.2009
The use and abuse of white guys in local advertising is fascinating. Think of big brand ad campaigns as fables compressing and packaging wider social currents in expensively expressive forms. They can tell us a lot about the evolving intricacies of race relations. A great ad campaign distills a mood or electrifies a feeling shared across wide segments of social life. They can be very powerful. We know how quickly catchphrases become currency. “YeboGogowhassupismaklikserious ovviasitsnotinsideitson…top”. That last one was from a classic coffee creamer ad from the 80s. It had a sleepy white guy who couldn’t remember where the product was. His wife yelled the catchphrase at him and he repeated it with a winning distemper that made married couples nod in bittersweet recognition. That ad was more about the diminishing erotic returns of cohabitation and age old vaudeville comedy tropes about henpecking wives, than race. But the white guy was significantly dopey, befuddled and inept. He is a strand in the originating gene of a long line of dopey, befuddled and inept white guys in local advertising.
I don’t get paid enough to exhaustively research the rich marketing history of disparaged white masculinity but it’s there and it suggests a social signifier entrenched and powerful enough to be messed with, without diminishing its real-world advantage (white guys still rule the boardroom and consume luxury goods and services far more than anyone else locally, if not globally).
The darkly brilliant recent cellphone ad with the white guy dancing alone to that one off kwaito cross-over monster “Nkalakatha” is a baroque refinement of marketed racial disparagement. It approximates the poignant atomized loneliness of glum worker bees stuck in empty rituals, perfected in that BBC sitcom The Office, while, yes, punching holes in the myth and relevance of white guys. He dances badly in the ad. He’s alone. Everyone else has gone home but he’s stuck in a kind of party death drive – dancing mindlessly to a song whose township brio and lyrics surpass his understanding. It’s a portrait of whiteness as chilling and singular in its abasement as Edvard Munch’s great expressionist painting, “The Scream” (1893). White guys, the cell ad suggests, are monstrous in our pleasure seeking indifference to the reality around us. We just don’t see how we look to Others. We step over bodies and guard our homes. The less we engage with the country proliferating around us, the more we dance alone. Strong stuff.
This masterful apotheosis of white baiting was prepared by the famous “Yebo Gogo” campaign. At their best, these ads had the malicious majesty of Roadrunner cartoons. The coyote comes close but never quite bests the savvy bird. Beep Beep. The two develop an intimate dance of competitive ill-will which seems set on an everlasting loop. The winner and loser both need each other to be who they are and that’s their strength, and their curse. The historic ad campaign repeated the formula of a dopey, befuddled and inept white guy helped out or foiled by a wise, gray-haired African patriarch with the voice of God, and a smile you could mesmerize nations with. He saved the day and made the call. The campaign ran parallel with the default State ideology of non-racial democracy – it set white guys at a different angle to blackness. No longer giving orders but opening their minds to black know-how, to indigenous skill, to the vast productive capacity of black entrepreneurial foresight. It was all about lessening the symbolic power of whiteness for an emerging market. The white guy wore a leopard print g-string for fuck’s sake! He was white trash. Lower middle class. Not so far from the economic level of the black mass market. He dressed badly and fell over things. He had a kind of emasculated Minnie Mouse voice. Where the African patriarch was regal and patient, tolerant and aware, an analogue Tambo or Sisulu. The white guy was wheedling and flustered, incompetent and way out of his depth. The catchphrase was affirmative. Yes it said. YeboGogo. Yes, yes, yes. We can help each other, black street savvy and moneyed white capital, we can BEE together, as long as you’re willing to lose cache, to re-tool your image status, to drop down the totem pole of iconicity.
And so we did (if only in Adland). White guys in promotional imagery became ever more befuddled, dopey and inept. The tile guy, the cuppa soup guy. It was genius really. A set of transitional images and values presented to a fractured society as a healing gesture made through the puncturing of white self-importance. And these days? The recent Player 23 moment has already passed. It was regressive and dumb. Never rising beyond the level of a Van Der Merwe joke.
But the same communications behemoth has just updated the dopey white guy sales premise with the current, “All the Single Ladies” campaign. With interesting and highly suggestive revisions. The ad is meant to be copied. It’s begging to be a meme. It wants to go viral. Technology is its logic, its pitch and its method. You can make your own version of the dance video and send it in and the company may use it for the next ad. It’s interactive. Participatory and open-ended. The company wants to suggest that the internet is there for all. It’s not a nation being addressed but a set of consumers. The imagery slides from race to race, gender to gender, location to location, class to class, without a hint of history, without an ounce of the friction of differences that makes us who we are. Technology has liberated the image from reality. It’s all held together by the dance moves, a pop song and, yup, the inept badly dressed white guy front and centre. There he is in denim hot pants and suspenders, earnestly mimicking the moves of one of the most visible and happening black women on the planet. He’s channeling her amped up blackness. Feeding off her star power. Playing at being a black woman. It is the fulfillment of the marketed abjection of white guys. The absolute inversion of a white guy is logically a black woman. He’s figuratively turning himself into his opposite on screen. Instead of dancing alone, like the Mandoza guy, a white guy stuck in his race and gender, mired in those categories, and suffering because of it, this new version is part of the free-flowing upbeat digital world, he slips locales, dances with everyone, participates, enjoys himself, gets laughs, has friends, is joined by people wherever he goes like a postmodern pied piper, ingenuously seducing Others, the nation itself, to his routine. He’s the last white guy standing – a white guy emptied of genuine content to be on everybody’s level. The strange fruit of the disparagement of whiteness in post-Apartheid promotional imagery. The one white guy unafraid to play himself. Where the gloriously emphatic Beyonce song is a convincing shout out to the unattached to stand up for themselves and find a union they can believe in (‘if you like it then you shoulda put a ring on it’) the ad suggests real union is in being connected, online, hooked up. The communications company that did so much to shape the look and feel of this country is still right on the money. What matters now to big business is less national reconciliation than the youth-driven capitalization of new frontiers, social networking, e-trade, digital commerce blissfully free from the offline claims of race and history that riddle our country. And the gateway into this enchanted kingdom is still the befuddled, dopey white guy learning life and business lessons from the font of blackness.
But how come nobody complains? Don’t white guys have a right to positive social imagery? It’s apparently okay to belittle white guys, with all the power, insofar as its not okay to demean the “disadvantaged” – the poor, the homeless, the racially or socially marginalized and sick. Why? It just is okay. But it gets complicated. Why are Stephen Hawking jokes okay? Does his whiteness override his disability? Or is it just envy over his massive brain? Is it okay that white bread corporate shill Ashley Taylor “blacks up” and plays a tasteless African woman in those cloying insurance infomercials? Is blackface minstrelsy ever justified, given its noxious US racial history? Al Jolson did it in the first talking picture, “The Jazz Singer” (1927). Leon Schuster did it in the worst talking picture, Mama Jack (one of the highest grossing local films ever). Eddie Murphy “whites up” often enough. Both mostly unfunny. Maybe what matters is how funny or considered and sensitive the bit is. Gene Wilder blacked up was funny enough in Silver Streak – his “honky” shyness liberated by jive-ass 70s blackness – while it definitely wasn’t cool when inane buffet-avoider Kate Moss blacked up for the cover of a UK newspaper doing a feature on AIDs in Africa, her nose photoshopped wider!
Anyway, we’re in the quiet intake of breath before a tsunami of promotional 2010 imagery that’ll effectively turn our entire country into an image of itself. We’re about to become un-real. Our streets will be cleared of garbage (both human and regular). Our cops will be visible. Our service providers operating optimally. Our ‘leaders’ grinning. Our airports heaving like Beijing. The air heady. The tills chiming. The bars heaving. The hookers rejoicing. Ah, it’ll be grand. But be sure to take notice of where white guys stand in all this. In the background? In the foreground? Out of the picture entirely? It’ll tell you a lot about this country.