The advertising industry is in crisis. Many people hate ads and some research tells us that ads have lost their effectiveness. South Africa’s most memorable and impactful television commercials were made between the 1980s and the late 1990s. This was a time when commercials like Sasol’s Ama-Glug-Glug and Telkom’s Molo Mhlobo were more than just a visual marketing tool to sell a product. Advertisements from this era had meaning, inspired and shaped culture, and played a vital role in uniting our nation.
Today, South Africans are subjected to fake, over-processed, over-stylized and severely photoshopped communication elements with curated and exaggerated outlooks on life. It’s concerning that for an industry that spent R47 billion in 2021 on media alone – excluding agency fees and production – what we’re seeing is mostly wallpaper that doesn’t build brand love or guarantees its effectiveness.
Despite the changing media landscape, left-brain thinking and short-termism may have something to do with it. According to Lemon Report Produced by System1 Group CIO Orlando Wood, the culture over the years has fluctuated between left-brain and whole-brain thinking. Currently, we are apparently in a period of left-brain-focused cultivation.
Because the left-brain’s primary tool is language, commercials use prominent voice-overs, on-camera monologues, or regular prose. The words impose themselves on the visuals, spelling out what you should think and how you should react to what you see. It eschews things that only the right brain understands, so there’s no room for character, betweenness, dialogue, or drama.
During what was revered as the golden age of advertising (1960s to the mid-1990s), creatives produced top quality advertising with the highest production values. It required exotic locations, famous names, brilliant films, masterful special effects, and flawless editing. Although it took time and required large budgets, the results were impactful and long-lasting.
Over the past two decades we have seen many independent South African advertising agencies disappear as they have been taken over by large international holding companies such as WPP, Omnicom and Publicis. It is estimated that almost 80% of the industry is now in foreign hands. These companies were built on the idea that by bringing together all the capabilities of the marketing and advertising ecosystem under one roof – creative, research, public relations, media buying and planning, digital production and social media – they could act as a one-stop shop. for the biggest traders in the world. This led to a marketing-driven approach to generating profits using short-termism as a strategy.
On the other hand, the shift to digital media has also seen more people move away from traditional media such as television, radio and newspapers. Streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video don’t have ads, and realizing they weren’t reaching their target audience, ad budgets are being spent where audiences — and especially younger audiences — are now going. : online and social media.
With so many digital channels competing for our clicks, it’s no surprise we can’t focus too long. Marketers therefore encourage short-term business activations that focus on productivity, standardization, repetition, and risk avoidance. This not only hurts creativity and creative efficiency, but ultimately reduces agency fees and profit margins. Ads then tend to look flat, lacking depth, perspective and background. The characters in an advertisement then also tend to be devitalized, inexpressive and presented as statues.
Advertising has the power to challenge the status quo, especially in South Africa, and address issues such as racism, diversity and representation, culture and inclusion. With digital media here to stay, it is crucial that the mindset must change to find the balance between long-term efficiency and short-term demand.
But I believe we are about to change again. Consumers are demanding that brands become more authentic, placing social and environmental considerations at the forefront of their purchasing decisions.
Brands will need to consider their purpose and make sure it’s connected to the culture. Edelman’s 2018 Earned Brand Study refers to consumers as “belief-driven shoppers,” where they choose, switch, avoid, or boycott a brand based on its stance on political or social issues that matter to them. This will give marketers the opportunity to inspire and elevate society.
Traditional media are making a comeback. While the closure of Associated Media Publishing and Caxton Printing and Publishing came as a complete shock, many magazines are clinging on. And what we’ve seen with the print industry is that local newspapers are taking a more dominant role. Their supporters perceive traditional media channels as more reliable than online media. Concerns about fake news and the speed with which it is published and shared online are making it harder for people to trust what they read digitally.
Ultimately, it’s about brands and marketers understanding who their customers are, what they do, and what they like. Because we know consumers are always looking for engaging content, the key is for advertising to tap into culture in a unique way.
Culture-informed creativity turns heads. Advertising should prioritize mainstream penetration and create memorable characters and situations. Efficiency is a consequence of brands investing in creating ongoing support for distinctive brand assets and collections of assets in fluid devices over time.
- The author, Mpume Ngobese, is co-CEO of Joe Public United