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Features & Columns
by Alyn Adams

The mighty morphing powder rainbows...

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I’ve written a gag, but I’m not doing stand-up nearly often enough at the moment, so I haven’t got to try it on an audience yet. But what’s a modest little magazine column for, if not to guarantee an audience? I’ll give you the background, then the gag, and you can decide.

Adverts are really positive about transformation and diversity, aren’t they? Actually, they have been for ages – back in the late ’90’s, I wrote a joke that went, “So, a black guy, a white guy and an Indian guy walk into a bar together... Because they’re making a beer commercial.”
It didn’t always work; some white crowds would look around at the three people of colour in the room (who were generally trying to chuckle without looking threatening) and just not get it. Of course, now that a lot of the popular comedy rooms attract properly diverse audiences, it no longer applies. Except perhaps as evidence that advertising can inspire positive social change, which is an admission I’d shudder to contemplate.

But you can’t deny adverts live in an inspirational, non-racial, happy South Africa. These days, we even have lots of chic, savvy black mums doing all the washing in the washing powder ads, have you noticed? In all those brand tests against Powder X that generate so much narrative tension... (“What if this time, Omo loses?” We’re on the edge of our seats...)

What they tend to gloss over, is that in washing powder advertising history, it was usually black mums doing the washing anyway. The only reason all the ads back in the ’80s featured solely white mums, was that buying the washing powder was the madam’s entire contribution to laundry day. But I digress.

The other ads – or perhaps I should call them lifestyle-enhancement featurettes – battering away at stereotypes right now are in the Nedbank campaign. That savvy Eugene and his omniscient voiceover guy. A young black hipster who can handle money and a caring bank manager – two stereotypes busted in one.

“I want that jacket,” says Eugene.

“Eugene,” says omniscient voiceover guy in paternal – some would say paternalistic – tones, “do you want it, or do you need it?” So Eugene curbs his impulses and goes on to buy a cupcake outlet. As you do.

As I said, on the face of it, an uplifting story of aspiration and transformation. Unless you’re a nasty mean-spirited cynic who believes that assumptions about class, race and gender are built into the very language and imagery of the dominant hegemony, in which case all you see is another Uncle Tom who can only succeed if he lets an invisible white guy tell him what to do...

That was it – that’s the gag I’m testing. Is it funny, or is it offensive for me to be flippant about these things? Is it, “Not funny, just painfully true”? I’ll probably only be doing the bit from “Adverts live in a diverse, happy SA” down, so I don’t think it goes on too long before an attempt at a punchline, does it? And I’ve scattered a few mini-punchlines throughout, to keep them interested. Tweet me at @alyndenzel or find me on Facebook if you like; I’d truly appreciate an opinion.

Amusingly, the voice behind omniscient voiceover guy, if I’m correct, is Michael Richard’s – one of our finest stage and screen actors. He’s just spent a few weeks in Isidingo, playing a gambling addict who defrauds his own son – and then gets killed in a messy family shooting. Which puts a wonderfully ironic spin on the idea of him giving Eugene advice on how to handle money...

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Issue 49



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