Witness Reporter
6 minute read
26 Apr 2021
06:23

Witty look at SA adverts that have become part of our cultural fabric

Witness Reporter

South African advertising agencies have produced some memorable television adverts whose slogans have become part of the cultural fabric of the nation. Borrowing from music, sport, politics and youth culture, brands have created definitive moments that have spoken to our national psyche. In her book It’s Not Inside It’s On Top, Khanya Mtshali takes a […]

South African advertising agencies have produced some memorable television adverts whose slogans have become part of the cultural fabric of the nation. Borrowing from music, sport, politics and youth culture, brands have created definitive moments that have spoken to our national psyche. In her book It’s Not Inside It’s On Top, Khanya Mtshali takes a keen and witty look at South African advertising.

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She questions commonly held truths, presenting a fresh take on how we’ve come to see ourselves through the ads that we grew up with. It’s Not Inside, It’s On Top is an entertaining and informed addition to the debate on the role of advertising in our democracy, and how business, politics and marketing intersect. It may also leave you laughing out loud. Read an extract from the book here.

The labour movement behind Volkswagen’s ‘People Logo’

The opening of Volkswagen South Africa’s “People Logo” ad is a buoyant spectacle of industrial activity. A heavy, pulsating drum-machine beat co-ordinates the scene of raw materials being molded, sliced and thrown onto the car company’s assembly line with the force and intensity of a young fighter landing his first punch. Black and coloured male workers attend to various duties on the shop floor, smiling at each other and then to the camera, before moving on to other tasks in the factory.

A white male driver joins in on the smiling as he transports various objects around with rehearsed festivity. After an obligatory display of the VW logo, which crashes onto a metal surface in slow motion, we hear the words of the “People Logo” jingle. It starts off as a melodic hum, transitioning into a corporate interpretation of what a Ladysmith Black Mambazo song might sound like before becoming a fully fledged anthem: “VW You and Me, We All Believe in Quality, We’re All Kinds of People in the Volkswagen Family.

”We’re then transported outside the plant where a low-angle moving shot reveals a racially integrated line-up of workers on a tarmac surface, dressed in their blue uniforms and VW caps, staring into the distance while passionately lip-syncing the jingle’s lyrics.

The camera returns to the plant. Black and coloured workers are now joking around together, helping one another out in what looks like the most fun and laid-back working environment in South Africa. Back outside, a few women workers are added to the frame for a hint of gender parity. The camera finally pans out to show the workers assembled in the shape of the VW logo, waving their caps in the air, which is shown from a handsome bird’s-eye view.

You may be wondering why I’m cataloguing the racial groups of the VWSA workers like a Stats SA employee in the middle of a census. In the context of some of the multi-national car company’s most memorable TV adverts, the “People Logo” is somewhat of an anomaly. It didn’t involve David Kramer, fancy race car drivers, a circus animal or a nice middle-class family travelling in a kombi (or Volksie Bus). Instead, the commercial was shot on the shop floor of the Uitenhage plant in the Eastern Cape, with the co-operation of about 3 000 workers who supposedly volunteered to feature in it. Operations were shut down for the day, costing VWSA millions in lost revenue, so that the film crew could capture the workers conducting routine activities, albeit with a touch of thespian flair and zest. There’s no denying that the “People Logo” is a visually pleasing and efficiently shot commercial. It evokes the kind of unity and hope reminiscent of the 1971 Coca-Cola TV commercial “Hilltop/I’d Like To Buy The World A Coke”, which bears some thematic similarities to the “People Logo”.

In that ad, young, hippie-looking adults of various nationalities, ethnicities and races assemble on a hill to sing about how much they’d like to unite the human race with the help of a bottle of Coca-Cola.On the surface, the VWSA “People Logo” commercial was a precursor to the political changes that would sweep the nation in the next few years in South Africa. It appeared to channel the spirit of non-racialism, which was a central part of the African National Congress’ (ANC) political identity, particularly after the 1994 elections. But this VWSA ad wasn’t made when the country was christened “The Rainbow Nation”, nor was it produced in the run-up to the 1995 Rugby World Cup. 

“The commercial was ranked South Africa’s favourite of the year according to Adtrack, a database owned by the data and consulting company Kantar Group, which has tested over 100 000 TV commercials and conducted 1,1 million interviews with South African citizens.”
Khanya Mtshali

In the same way the term “The New South Africa” was created by the late advertiser Louis Wilsenach during his tenure with the National Party (NP) in the 1980s, the idea for the “People Logo” was devised in the decade before democracy, when some members of former president PW Botha’s administration were beginning to see the limits of “Total Onslaught, Total Strategy”. Released in 1988, the commercial was created by a small but dynamic advertising agency called Rightford, Searle-Tripp and Makin (RS-TM), later Ogilvy & Mather, Rightford Searle-Tripp (O&MRS-T&M). The commercial was ranked South Africa’s favourite of the year according to Adtrack, a database owned by the data and consulting company Kantar Group, which has tested over 100 000 TV commercials and conducted 1,1 million interviews with South African citizens.

It also won a Grand Prix at the Loeries in 1988.While this vision of proto-rainbowism in the “People Logo” may have left viewers feeling optimistic about the potential of South Africa, the atmosphere at the Uitenhage factory where the commercial had been shot wasn’t so rosy. The ad’s invoking of multiracial, working-class solidarity was more an appropriation of the camaraderie that was established in the wake of the 1980 Volkswagen general strike, in which black and coloured workers staged a historic walkout at the Uitenhage plant. In the “People Logo”, Black and Coloured workers pledge allegiance to the so-called Volkswagen family. In reality, one of the few organisations to which they would have shown such devotion would have been their union.

• It’s Not Inside It’s On Top, written by Khanya Mtshali, is published by Tafelberg.