Flight And Fright: When Advertising Goes Wrong

fight or flight responseSome may argue that adverts that cause a scandal are just as effective as ads that elicit feelings of goodwill. They certainly attract a lot of attention, but they are risky, as sometimes bad publicity is just that, and the damage to a brand’s reputations can be long-lasting, if not permanent.

One of the latest examples of controversial advertising comes from a Cape Town-based security company called Xpanda’s, which has released a radio advertisement that is causing heated debate in the industry. Xpanda’s brand has been defined through its satirical, risky and potentially offensive marketing campaigns, and the latest ad conforms to type.

As expected, a few people lodged complaints with the Advertising Standards Authority of South Africa (ASASA), which found that there were no grounds upon which to order the ad be withdrawn.

Advertisements of this nature are nothing new; in fact, the world is bursting with politically incorrect advertisers trying desperately to avoid commercial oblivion. Some succeed, and some seriously cross the line.

Oy vey!

Xpanda’s radio advertisement depicts a dialogue between two cellmates. The manner in which the conversation takes place is more important than what is said. The black man speaks in a grungy, unsophisticated accent, the kind that suggests a lower intelligence and which is reserved for mocking “the black condition” in South Africa.

The second cellmate asks him what he’s inside for, to which the black man replies that he was so hungry he walked into a baas’s (term used by black people to describe ‘superior’ white men_ kitchen and stole a roast chicken. The upshot is that the madam (‘superior white woman) slammed the Xpanda door in his face so that he couldn’t escape. He ends up in jail, and didn’t even get the chicken.

As the stereotype goes, there are no bounds to what a black man would do for a taste of chicken.

ASASA’s ruling

ASASA determined that the skin colour of the actors in the commercial is immaterial to the plot, therefore finding no reason to prevent the company from airing the advertisement. In essence, despite the offence it caused some people, the ad is still considered to comply with the requirements of legality, decency, honesty, and truthfulness. It is not considered discriminatory, no matter what a fair number of people may think.

Xpanda is not alone

In typical South African fashion, many dispute the decision made by ASASA, but it must be pointed out that the Xpanda commercial is nothing new among advertisers on a global scale. Consider, for example, Pepsi Co’s Mountain Dew internet advertisement created by rapper Tyler. The video on the website showed a battered woman on crutches looking at a police lineup; while on the other side of a one-way-mirror, the goat (the accused) is standing in the lineup next to stereotypically thug-like-looking black men, saying intimidating things to her in typically gangster lingo. She ends up too scared to press charges. The video was taken off the website after multiple objections were raised over the racial stereotyping and mockery of abuse towards woman.

Advertising companies all over the world are cashing in on this scare tactic one way or the other, and the decision-making process to flight advertisements of this nature on television or online seems to have become less painful. The controversial advertisement might make consumers think twice about using their trusted brand, but the stir caused magnifies the companies’ exposure. The advertisement’s failure to appeal to people’s sensitivities directly leads to the company being the talk of the town, and thus greater brand awareness.

While the benefits of the fright factor are instant, the damage caused by the flighting of this kind of advertising can only be observed or calculated over a longer period of time. There is a possibility that, with time, the consumer’s trust and respect for a brand might gradually deplete due to a repetitive risky marketing strategy. In the end, all we can do is watch this space.


Lindelwa Ndaba writes for a display brand specialist whose range of services includes exhibition stands for conferences, showroom displays, and trade shows.

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