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Do South Africans still love advertising?

For decades now, South Africa, relative to its size in global advertising terms, has won far more awards than just about any other country on earth. And, while most South Africans will swear blind that they actually hate television ads particularly, what they really mean is that they hate bad advertising.
But when a good one comes on air, they always love it so much they put issues such as politics, crime and unemployment aside at dinner parties, in the pubs and shebeens and share a laugh - not to mention deep and profound discussions on the latest ad that has taken their fancy.

Ask radio talk show hosts and they will tell you that when they are faced with dead air, due to no-one calling in to a show, they just have to invite listeners to phone in with their favourite TV commercials and the switchboard lights up like a Christmas tree.

Ads - not tits and bums

A decade or so ago, the SABC ran a 13-part series featuring the world's greatest TV and cinema commercials. Within weeks, the show was the most watched in prime time - even pushing a news bulletin into second place for the first time in TV history and relegating Pamela Anderson to an also-ran third place.

Some time ago, on a radio programme, I tested South Africa's national memory by playing the jingles from some Springbok Radio ads from the 1950s. Callers got the whole lot right instantly. For example, remember this one; "You'll wonder where the dullness went when you brush your teeth with..." Of course, Pepsodent.

And yes, lest I get hung drawn and quartered by all those British immigrants to SA with a penchant for advertising accuracy, the UK version did indeed use "yellow" instead of "dullness".

But, the iconic age of advertising in SA was undoubtedly the 1980s. So much so, in fact, that when a panel of advertising industry creatives chose their favourite ads of all time a few years ago, there wasn't a single ad on their list that was produced between 2000 and 2009.

Yet, if they did it again, I am quite sure that the campaign for Savannah would feature - particularly the " complimentary peanuts" commercial. And the KFC commercial with those kids all trying to outdo each other with their holiday outings and the cute little girl who followed the youngster who simply said that he was taken to KFC, just standing there speechless. This commercial typifies that secret ingredient that makes the difference between a great ad and something nondescript. And that is production value. Superb lighting, a great idea, good sound and, most of all, excellent acting.

Who's a tail gunner then?

These ingredients were all very much part of SA's most iconic advertising. The most memorable of which just surely had to have been those irreverent Nando's commercials, such as the ad featuring the guide dog being distracted by the smell of Nando's chicken and walking a little old blind lady into a lamp post.

And my favourite, called "The Tail Gunner", featuring an elderly couple in a restaurant talking to an extremely camp gay couple. "My son says you're a tail gunner," the old gent says to one of them and then naively adds, "I was in the air force too, you know."

But, getting to SA's most loved TV commercial, in spite of many people in the marketing industry believing that black and white viewers and consumers have differing likes and dislikes when it comes to advertising, this is certainly not true at all.

Still to this day, one of the most-loved commercials of all time by all race groups in SA is an ad from Cardies. It's about a very rural Afrikaans woman who petulantly shrugs off a geriatric lothario who presents her with gifts such as pumpkins and piglets but finally relents when he drops off a Cardies greeting card.

Beating the Benz

Then, there was the most fascinating of all advertising campaigns ever produced in this country. Mercedes-Benz produced an outstanding award-winning commercial based on a true story of a Cape Town man who fell asleep at the wheel of his Merc and crashed through a low parapet on Chapman's Peak Drive, somersaulting and rolling down an almost vertical 250m cliff face. He survived, thanks to Mercedes-Benz safety technology.

This commercial grabbed the attention of SA and was so successful that other brands tried to muscle in on the act. BMW produced an extremely cheeky commercial featuring one of their cars on exactly the same stretch of Chapman's Peak and also shown to be going into a skid. But, instead of crashing down the cliff, the next scene showed the BMW carrying on along the road, with a voiceover talking about BMW "beating the bends" but which TV viewers heard as "beating the Benz."

ASA got cross

Of course, the country's advertising regulator, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), was furious because, in those days when the ASA was primarily there to protect members from each other, it was simply not done to make light of a competitor's advertising, let alone being so cavalier with its precious intellectual capital.

But, according to the ASA rules, the watchdog body was not allowed to take any action unless someone complained. And the Mercedes-Benz masterstroke was that it kept completely quiet. Which meant that the media frenzy that followed just garnered more and more publicity for both Mercedes and BMW. But mostly for Mercedes, because the company realised that there was no greater compliment than imitation.

However, the ASA simply could not stand by and see BMW get away with what it regarded as a blatant breach of the rules. So, it took the unprecedented step of banning the BMW advertisement without having received a complaint. BMW hit back and sued the ASA.

Meanwhile, the publicity frenzy continued unabated, with Mercedes smiling all the way to the brownie points bank. Eventually, reason prevailed and the ASA vs BMW litigation was resolved on the steps of the Supreme Court. BMW agreed to withdraw the ad voluntarily - not a difficult thing to do because its media schedule had come to an end anyway - and the ASA agreed to allow the ad to be flighted on television one more time.

Heavy dude

Another iconic ad of the 1980s was all about IBM disinvesting from the country but leaving behind a local IBM clone called ISM. This was the basis of "ISM Elephants", a TV commercial featuring a big brother elephant (IBM) with his trunk over the shoulders of his baby sibling (ISM) and walking through the desert sand dunes to the tune of "He ain't heavy, he's my brother".

Ironically, however, while this ad was immensely popular, very few people could remember what it was about or who it was promoting.

Another ad that introduced an expression that is still widely used today was Cremora's "It's not inside, it's on top" TV commercial. Once again, a wonderful example of excellent acting and production values.

Sadly, when Cremora appointed a new ad agency a few years after this ad was launched, the new brooms decided that they couldn't possibly continue flighting a commercial that their competitors had made and persuaded Cremora to dump it.

Cremora cock-up

Later, Cremora tried to reintroduce the ad - this time using another actor who just got it completely wrong and, after a few flightings, that ad was unceremoniously kicked into touch.

There are many things that make good advertising great.

The first is the entertainment factor. All of SA's truly great and memorable TV commercials are entertaining. And so they should be, given that TV is essentially a medium of entertainment.

And, secondly, they spark some or other emotion. Such as Reach for a Dream's "Sam", about the true story of a young schoolboy who had cancer and subsequently lost all his hair as a result of chemotherapy The ad showed his first day back at school, where he found all his classmates with their heads shorn in sympathy. Even the toughest of TV viewers could not hold back tears after watching this iconic ad.

And so it was with Castrol's "Boet and Swaer" series of commercials, that brought another kind of emotion, laughter, to millions of SA lounges. And those great commercials were ones that everyone knew the brand being promoted.

One could go on and on listing South Africa's iconic ads. But, that won't be necessary because if you have lived in this country for longer than 20 years, then all you need do is to close your eyes and remember when advertising was really great.

My top 10 greatest South African ads of all time. Agree?

Missing ads: if you can supply links, upload to YouTube or Zoopy or them to us, would be most appreciative.

About Chris Moerdyk: @chrismoerdyk

Apart from being a corporate marketing analyst, advisor and media commentator, Chris Moerdyk is a former chairman of Bizcommunity. He was head of strategic planning and public affairs for BMW South Africa and spent 16 years in the creative and client service departments of ad agencies, ending up as resident director of Lindsay Smithers-FCB in KwaZulu-Natal. Email Chris on and follow him on Twitter at @chrismoerdyk.
I remember that ad clearly! one of my all time favorites! and i think the soundtrack 'its a hard life' ties in perfectly with the synergy it creates with those iconic visuals.
Posted on 11 Feb 2011 11:56
Jenny Clark
I dont think the fact that people remember ads mean they liked ads, or likd good ads. I think it's a matter of making do with what you have. If you only give me red and blue jelly beans, even if I dont like Jelly beans but have a sweet tooth, I might still say I like red jelly beans if asked. Quite frankly if advertising vanished forever, would I miss it? NO! I'd far rether hear my friends tell me what a great dentist they have, or tell me about a great make up remover product they tried.Companies need to raise their game and stop relying on a captive TV audience. I for one, am certainly no longer captive thanks to PVR!
Posted on 7 Jun 2011 14:28