How democracy feels in advertising


Anton Crone takes an industry insider’s look at a particularly tricky job for the
advertising creative – the party political campaign.
Let me start by saying I am not qualified to write this. I have no experience of
politics outside of the boardroom, and in that game I have lost my seat a
number of times. Yet despite my political naivety, I have twice been approached
to drive political party messages of national significance, and both times I
declined saying I didn’t believe in the party. When I look back, I ask myself if I
declined because of cowardice.

In one case I was fully employed at an advertising agency where the leaders
gave me a choice and respected my decision. In the other, I was offered a
freelance assignment at a time when I needed cash. Turning it down meant two
more months of two-minute noodles. That’s not a sacrifice in a country where so
many people have it much worse, but that was chief among my concerns: I
sensed that the advertising would speak of addressing poverty but that the
client would not act on it (rich coming from a guy who’s job entailed convincing
people that plastic roof tiles can withstand hail storms and that luxury cars are a

I’m certain many advertising professionals working on election campaigns don’t
vote for their clients. It’s a job, and they are paid for their expertise. You could
call this mercenary work. Yet a good friend put it more pragmatically. “There are
many brands I’ve worked on that I don’t like or respect or whose ethics and
practices I think are questionable,’ she says. “Big oil companies, for instance,
cosmetic companies that test on animals, big brand clothing and shoe
companies whose ads we adore but who use sweatshop labour in China or
India. Very few brands can afford to live in glass houses. Yet we take their
money, we make their ads and, as consumers, even buy their products or
services.’ She has worked on two different party campaigns even though she
didn’t necessarily support the parties at the time. Her attitude is that as long as
no one is forced to buy the political brand, she will work on their campaign.
Earlier in her career she refused to work on a piece of apartheid government
business. “Basically the communication involved justifying the behaviour and the
policies of the apartheid government, which was desperate to defend itself at
the time,’ she says. “For this I was singled out quite sarcastically in a staff
meeting. I replied that I was not prepared to advertise a brand that 80% of the
country was forced to buy. I’m sure the CD and MD thought I was a cheeky,
leftie, communist, shit-stirring individual, but I don’t think I cared. I thought they
were greedy and unprincipled.’

We are fortunate now to live in a democracy where we can make a choice. In
the media, despite dubious recent events, we are still free to speak. But as
another advertising friend intimates, he who spends the most speaks the
loudest. “The economy is bad because of the government. But if they offer
money to do this then you take it,’ he says. “One hears of the depth of
intimidation this party has employed due to the fact that it holds the purse
strings. It’s terrifying and it’s part of the reason people are shooting these
commercials. But take that away and they really have very little. For every
campaign message there should be an effective counter message or something
that challenges it.’

In an economy like South Africa’s, where ad agencies are better off taking what
business they can and doing the client’s bidding, a challenge to a client is the
last thing on the agenda. The same rhetoric is spewed out election after
election. The strategy is written, the mood board needs a bit of polish, but it’s all
there, so agencies just get on with it. It’s easy money. And perhaps we feel that
South African political parties are so full of it that not even the magic wand of
creative persuasion can add value to their pedantic rhetoric.

But we should be better than that, this liberal industry, advertising. The closest
we’ve got to political activism is for a neighbouring country’s newspaper. TBWA
Hunt Lascaris’ Trillion Dollar Campaign illustrated Zimbabwe’s hyperinflation by
printing the communication on Zimbabwe Dollar bills. But do we tackle our own

Perhaps I shouldn’t have turned down those two gigs. Perhaps I was a coward
not to take the opportunity to walk into the boardroom and challenge the man
to act on what he says, to give him a campaign that was so good it filled him
with a sense of his responsibility to change this country and to be accountable
to the people who believe him. But no, that’s naive. I should have learnt by
now. I’ve challenged clients to stop following the formula and to innovate. I’ve
pushed them too hard, and I’ve lost my seat. But man, it felt good to challenge
them. Better than that, it felt right. It felt like democracy.


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