South African companies frequently spark social media outrage – is this a new marketing strategy?

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Picture: iStock
Picture: iStock


Social media users in South Africa were recently up in arms with regard to an advert that had appeared on the website of Clicks, a leading retailer in pharmaceutical and beauty products in the country.

The advert, according to most users, has racist connotations and it led to members of the EFF staging protests at Clicks stores nationwide.

Read: The EFF can no longer take its fight to Clicks’ doorsteps

Before Clicks’ advert, there were multitudes of other adverts by big corporations that seem to be intent on purposely riling black people by strategically rolling out racially offensive commercials.

The only thing that is worse than being talked about is not being talked about.
Oscar Wilde

One would think that companies such as Clicks, which put the advert on their website, and TRESemmé, the Unilever-owned beauty products company that actually came up with the advert, with their millions in budgets dedicated to getting marketing right, would know better about what is considered offensive and distasteful in the current racial or political climate, but alas!

Read: The Clicks hair advert is an indicator of transformation agenda that went wrong in SA 

Although cases of offensive marketing campaigns go all the way back for more than a decade, social media is the reason they have been in the spotlight of late, with people “calling out” these brands for their campaigns.

However, the irony is, as more brands are named and shamed for this sort of distasteful marketing, the trend still continues, begging the question, are these companies doing it on purpose?

Social media users are reactive and they are forceful in their reaction. Big corporations rely on this fact, as this fundamental reality of the internet drives the market.

If social media users decide to boycott a particular product because of an offensive commercial, let it not be for a few days when the topic is trending ...

Oscar Wilde once famously said, “the only thing that is worse than being talked about is not being talked about”, and it would not be far-fetched to believe that the corporations putting out these types of adverts have this statement posted on their marketing departments’ walls as their mantra, holding the belief that there is no such thing as bad publicity.

In response to an offensive advert, social media users may rebel and boycott the offending brand for a few weeks at most but, as with everything on social media, people forget and move on.

The company issues a half-hearted apology statement and retraction of the ad, and then goes back to enjoying their year-end dividends.

Read: Black people must use spending power to break behemoth of white capital

One may question the ethical correctness of outrage marketing but the bottom line is that it works for these big companies, as their financial returns can attest.

They will keep putting out these offensive adverts as long they keep getting a reaction every time they do so.

A reaction, if not done right, allows these companies to capitalise on all the follow-up rage and turn it into profits.

Even if social media users know that these companies are using their concerns for social issues as a means to get more profits, the audience finds itself in a conundrum in that, if they angrily react to the commercial, they are giving the corporation the attention they are looking for, but then again, if they do not react, it seems like they are letting the company get away with offensive and irresponsible marketing.

As a more effective solution, if social media users decide to boycott a particular product because of an offensive commercial, let it not be for a few days when the topic is trending but long enough for the corporations to understand that people cannot be abused and their anger cannot be used as a marketing strategy.

Boycott them for as long as it takes to severely affect them financially and then, and only then, will we see the incidence of distasteful commercials go down.

Modise is a writing fellow at African Liberty, a blogger and a podcaster. He tweets via @EphraimModise1


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