Advertising agencies should be held accountable for racist adverts - Zulaikha Patel

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Activist Zulaikha Patel.
Activist Zulaikha Patel.
Alet Pretorius/Gallo Images/Getty Images
  • The South African Human Rights Commission is holding an inquiry into racial discrimination - or discrimination in advertising.
  • Activist Zulaikha Patel says advertising agencies need to be held accountable for their discriminatory adverts.
  • Two researchers argued that advertising for unhealthy food needs to be regulated.

Anti-racism activist Zulaikha Patel says advertising agencies behind racist and discriminatory advertisements should be held accountable. 

Patel was speaking on the first day of the South African Human Right's Commission's inquiry into racial discrimination or discrimination in advertising.  

Patel raised the issue of the TRESemmé advert, which labelled African hair "frizzy and dull", "dry and damaged" from two years ago.  

She said: "That advertisement was a direct reinforcement of notions used during colonialism and apartheid that blackness is inferior. The racism seen in the advert is a form of 21st-century discrimination in advertising. 

"The Clicks advertisement was a direct reinforcement of the very notions that were used within apartheid and colonisation that made blackness to be seen as more inferior, than everything else and something that is not to be seen within the standard of beauty," she said.

READ | Clicks hair advert: senior exec resigns, TRESemmé to be removed from shelves, employees suspended

The hearings started on Monday and are expected to end on Friday.  

Patel said the advert reinforced racist stereotypes against black women. 

"So the words dry and damaged and frizzy and dull were used to describe a black women's hair opposed to the other side that showed white women's hair as normal and flat and which reinforces the anti-blackness which is constructed by colonialism which has stripped black people of their dignity.

When you are passing messages to society, you must ensure they uphold the Constitution. We are in a society that no longer requires diversity training; we need inclusion training rather. This has not been fully defined and that is why we are seeing adverts like this.

She said it was time advertising agencies be held accountable.  

"This advertisement, I believe, should be one where we see accountability because it is not a first of its kind. There has been a pattern that repeats itself where we have seen advertisements that insult a majority of the demographics of our population, especially in a country like ours where we come from a past that is not completely a past because remnants of that past still find themselves in today's society."

Freedom of expression and racism

She recommended a national document be drawn up to say what advertising should portray and what messaging is discriminatory.  

"There is a fine line between freedom of expression and when your remarks become racist. Everyone has freedom of expression, but discrimination should not be defined as freedom of expression." 

The hearings are led by Advocate Bokankatla Malatji. 

He said the commission decided to hold the hearings because of complaints they received about racist advertisements.  

Malatji said through the investigation; the commission wants to craft long- to medium-term goals for the sector to promote equality, as opposed to just reacting to complaints.  

He said the investigation would not proceed from specific allegations.

Instead, the commission will try to understand the makeup of the local advertising industry, including its size, the leaders in the industry, and racial and gender inclusivity. 

He said they would also look at how adverts are made and approved.  

Advertising and food

Two researchers also told the inquiry that advertising to children should be restricted to fight non-communicable diseases.  

Researchers Petronell Kruger and Mikateko Mafuyeka said children needed to be protected from adverts for unhealthy food and beverages.  

Mafuyeka told the hearing that there was a clear link between marketing to children and the rise of non-communicable diseases in the country. She said this also affects women, the poor, and disabled people.  This, she said, amounted to discriminating against these groups. 

READ | Unilever admits hair ad was 'racist and we apologise unreservedly'

She argued that unhealthy products, like cigarettes, should not be advertised. 

Mafuyeka said children who saw unhealthy food advertising ate more calories in a day than those who didn't see the adverts.

"That means watching advertisements had children eating the equivalent of one extra Big Mac burger every six days. The marketing of unhealthy foods - close to school - informs their [children's] choice to opt for unhealthy food options."   

Kruger said the idea of making an independent choice was not real. 

"Research has shown there is a myth of individual choices. Food environments are systems created by government regulations. We are not saying stop [the sale of] a particular product; we say [don't] address your speech to children."

She said the Advertising Regulatory Board (ARB) should be legally recognised to improve the advertising landscape, and all marketing companies be forced to register with them.

Currently, being part of the ARB is voluntary.

"When we do recognise [the] ARB, it must have real sanctions power. Also, membership to the ARB must be compulsory. The government needs to step up to protect its people."

The hearings continue on Monday afternoon with the EFF's Dr Mbuyiseni Ndlozi on the stand.  

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