Whose (payoff) line is it anyway? The quest to discover who put Cremora on top

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It's not inside . . . The Cremora ad is one of SA's most memorable advertisements. (Pictures: Ornico)
It's not inside . . . The Cremora ad is one of SA's most memorable advertisements. (Pictures: Ornico)

Ask any South African what payoff line has stuck with them the most over the years, and there’s a big chance they’ll mention It's Not Inside, It's On Top, the six-word tagline of the Cremora ad.

It's a catchphrase that has long occupied a place in our national lexicon, appearing in headlines for articles, novels, Facebook groups, recipe books. But who thought it up? In this extract from her new book, cultural critic Khanya Mtshali goes in search of person responsible for the beloved ad.

It’ s a tagline so ubiquitous, so part of the small bits of linguistic furniture we share as South Africans, that calling it iconic feels too grand and fussy, like wearing a ballgown to a braai.

“It’s not inside, it’s on top” has long occupied a place in our national lexicon, appearing in headlines for articles, novels, Facebook groups, recipe books and even another ad (hello IJ!), identifying us, however imperfectly, as one people living under one land.

The premise for this Cremora ad feels like folklore at this point, but it’s worth repeating for those who may not be in the know. A man boils a kettle of water for what looks like a much-needed cup of coffee. He pours the hot water into the mug, smiling contentedly as the steam touches his face. 

He glances for the Cremora in the fridge but doesn’t see it. He then becomes frantic, pulling out jars of pickled-looking goods, almost-empty condiment bottles and even a pineapple. Naturally, he blames his wife and suspects she may have hidden it from him. 

At that moment, a narrator enters to explain that because Cremora tastes so deceptively like milk (advertising does require some suspension of reality, after all), this hapless husband can’t help but look for it in the fridge.

Eventually, the man yells for his wife, demanding to know why the Cremora isn’t in the fridge. 

“It’s not inside, it’s on top,” she responds, in a high-pitched, incredulous voice. 

“It’s not inside, it’s onnn . . . top,” he says, mockingly at first before looking up to find the Cremora staring right at him from the top of the fridge. 

By this point, the audience has not only caught on to the joke, but they’ve likely repeated the innuendo-laden line themselves.

I have long been curious about where this payoff line originated. This intrigue surfaced more than three years ago, somewhat informally, when I was trawling through the homesick swamp that is the South African YouTube expat community. I had a deadly case of homesickness as a lonely South African master’s graduate student in New York City, keen to find corners of the internet to alleviate or worsen my misery by going down and up and back down memory lane again. 

On YouTube I sifted through video after video to jog my memory about an old jingle I'd forgotten, or to rewatch a children’s show like Kideo, just to determine whether it was actually any good.

About two years into this routine, I came across a compilation video titled WATCH – CREMORA Adverts, one for blacks and the other for whites.

The clip showed two versions of the beloved commercial, as the title indicates, one performed by white actors, the other by black actors.

Like many adults who were born a few years before or after the 1994 elections, I’d grown up assuming that there was a single Cremora ad with its star being a black man.

Given South Africa’s grim history, I couldn’t help but imagine some humourless blowhard at the SABC, telling Cremora to create separate (but equal!) It’s Not Inside, It’s On Top ads.

However, after some quick research, I discovered these ads were actually made in different decades. Depending on when you were born, you’re likely just to know or be more familiar with one Cremora ad than the other.

The first, called Mrs Cremora, was released in 1985, back when the coffee creamer was owned by the America-based food company Borden Inc.

When the coffee creamer was bought by Nestle in 1998, the original ad was remade with only one noticeable change: the hapless husband was now black, while the shrieking wife went by the name Thandi instead of Helen.

In an ideal world, the decision to cast a black couple in roles that had been played by white people wouldn’t be subject to any suspicion or enquiry. It wouldn’t prompt any accusations of pandering, affirmative action or separatism. But we live in South Africa, where the circumstances are far from ideal.

In the comments underneath the video, one person chastised the original poster for stoking controversy and division by insinuating the two commercials were made to target separate demographics. The person had a point.

As treacherous as South Africa’s past has been, using two ads made in two different contexts to manufacture racial tension is not only in bad taste, but also served as a reminder of how easy it is to make the internet an even more contentious place.

I decided to leave this part of YouTube because the comments section turned into a memorial site for life under apartheid. My nostalgia was shameful, but not in a crimes-against-humanity-kind-of-way.

I gave the account the benefit of the doubt regarding the Cremora gaffe, but their presumptuous observation about separatism in the advertising industry wasn’t wrong, particularly during the time period from the 1980s to the 1990s.

Speaking to The Economist in 1997, Peter Vundla, co-founder of HerdBuoys, the first Black-owned agency in South Africa, called out the "imaginative poverty" of white creative directors, adding that making a commercial for the two markets wasn’t just small-minded, but costly.

The existence of the two Cremora commercials did partially explain why the tagline has lived for as long as it has. But it also opened another can of worms. Instead of devoting time to discovering who came up with the famous payoff line, the question then became why did Nestlé decide on a copy-cat Cremora remake?

Honey, it's not in the fridge . . . (Picture: Orni
Thandi, there's no Cremora in the fridge . . . (Picture: Ornico)

I reached out to the company last year to get a sense of the reasons behind the personnel changes in the remake. Katekani Precious Shibambo, a consumer engagement manager at the food and beverage company, said that when the brand was bought by Nestlé in 1998, there had been suggestions floating around about "introduc[ing] the ad to a younger generation of South Africans".

As memorable and enduring as the original ad had been, 1985 was a different time to 1998. It was a new country with a supposedly new identity and ethos.

According to Shibambo, it was important for Nestlé to reflect these realities in the remake of the commercial.

"We were trying to give[the original commercial] more of a South African flavour that people could relate to."

But besides the actual coffee creamer itself, the original 1985 ad is pretty South African. From the husband’s posh white South African pronunciation of "refrigerator" and "coffee", to the woman’s overly high-pitched, tonal delivery of the word "inside", you won’t have any trouble finding these types of accents lurking by the Woolworths plant-based section.le.

I suspect what Shibambo meant to say was that the use of black actors was Nestlé’s attempt to market itself explicitly to the people who were responsible for Cremora’s dominant share of the market.

In other words, Nestlé’s decision to change the racial make-up of the commercial could have potentially had little to do with nationalism and more to do with representation given where South Africa happened to be at that moment in time.

Naturally, I did encounter a few perspectives suggesting these personnel changes were yet another example of so-called identity politics gone mad. In these critiques, the decision to replace the actors in the 1985 commercial apparently spelled death for Cremora as the ad failed to capture the imaginations of South Africans as it once had.

At a Financial Mail AdForum event in October 2015, marketing manager Mongezi Mtati used the Nestlé remake of the Cremora ad as a cautionary tale of cynical racial pandering, emphasising that the exchange didn’t fool South Africans and instead affected sales of the product.

In the op-ed "Political correctness & over-sensitive regulation have ruined advertising", published on The Media Online in 2016,marketing and media commentator Chris Moerdyk writes that political correctness in advertising had "ruined things to the point that creatives are stifled by the presence of lawyers looking over their shoulders and clients with absolutely no balls whatsoever".

Moerdyk argues that 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 their competitors had made and persuaded Cremora to dump it", adding that when the brand redid the ad, the new actor "just got it completely wrong and after a few flightings,[it] was unceremoniously kicked into touch".

Yet when I first saw both commercials back to back, I didn’t notice much of a difference. With the exception of the first actor’s use of "refrigerator" as opposed to the second actor’s "fridge", not to mention his smooth and effective inclusion of black South African vocal affectations, their portrayals of the hapless husband searching for Cremora are almost identical.

The wives share the same irritated voice when responding to the cluelessness of their partners. I also couldn’t find any evidence to dispute or confirm Mtati and Moerdyk’s claims about the second ad tanking Cremora’s sales.

What I do know is that the product remains the more economical option to purchasing dairy milk. For those who don’t like Cremora, the tagline has endured and lived on in a way that supersedes however well or badly the remake performed among viewers.

If there weren’t any discernible differences between the two ads, what other reasons were behind the idea that the second commercial hadn’t been as successful and engaging as the first one?

A more persuasive answer seemed to lie in the politics of the remake, or reboot, which have always been fraught with failure. Being tasked with recapturing the magic of an iconic scene from a film, the theme song of a cult TV show or the payoffline for an exceptionally well-received commercial is not impossible, but there is a possibility that you could alienate those who are more accustomed to the original.

Sometimes it doesn’t have much to do with talent, delivery or capability. The remake is difficult because it indicates a significant passage of time, a recognition that your perspective is no longer as urgent, young or relevant as it once was.

Traditionally, critics and moviegoers’ fatigue at Hollywood executives treating the reboot as a bona fide style of filmmaking often gets framed as a resistance towards the kind of artistic laziness that generates money for the studios. Without being too much of an armchair psychiatrist, some of these objections are said to stem from the attachments we develop to things that form a big part of our childhood, young adulthood or a period of our lives that we romanticise.

In the field of autobiographical memory studies, this is often referred to as a "reminiscence bump" in which adults over the age of 40 recall memories from their teenage and early adult years more intensely than others, because our memory is often strongest at these pivotal moments of our lives.

In an essay for The Guardian about the Ghostbusters remake in 2016, neuroscientist and writer Dean Burnett argues that this bump usually plays itself out as nostalgia, where we believe "things are worse now than they were in the past, despite there being ample evidence to the contrary."

I was still interested in discovering who was behind those six catchy words

When someone interferes with something that played a formative role in your childhood and adulthood, it can "lower your status [and] reduce your sense of control", which most of us would find challenging to handle. TV had only been in the country for about nine years when the original Cremora ad was flighted in 1985, while TV advertising was just celebrating its seventh birthday.

Having endured the embarrassment of not being able to watch the 1969 moon landing in the comfort of their living rooms, South Africans who could afford TV greeted its arrival in 1976 with much enthusiasm. Similarly, TV ads initially received a warm welcome, arguably the warmest they’d ever get from that point onwards.

Although I'd arrived at my own conclusions about the Cremora remake, I was still interested in discovering who was behind those six catchy words: It’s Not Inside, It’s On Top. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to speak to them or figure out their "genius".

I was just eager, for purely personal reasons, to put a name to the phrase that had retained its relevance through the terms of two apartheid presidents, a democratic election, Brandon October’s loss to Heinz Winckler in the first season of Idols, Siphiwe Tshabalala’s goal in the opening match of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, and Tito Mboweni’s insufferable presence on Twitter.

Most of the articles written about Mrs Cremora centre around Adtrack’s list of 35 best-liked ads in South Africa, in which Net#work BBDO is cited as the agency for Cremora.

When I emailed a representative from the agency to check whether this was correct and request an interview, I was informed that there was no way they could have made the ad. Net#work BBDO opened its doors for business in 1994, while the Cremora ad came out in 1985.

I then reached out to Kantar and it was suggested that perhaps an older iteration of Net#workBBDO had been responsible for the campaign. Running out of options, I reached out to the Advertising Regulatory Board (ARB)who, funnily enough, referred me to Kantar.

I tried my luck with Nestlé in the hopes that they would have this information on file. After being cc’d in so many emails that I actually contemplated deleting my inbox for the first time in eight years, I tried the newspaper archives available through my institution.

Cultural critic Khanya Mtshali was determined to u
Cultural critic Khanya Mtshali was determined to uncover how the Cremora ad originated.

I came up with nothing. I then sent cold emails to every industry practitioner I couldI think of. While waiting to hear back from them, I was referred to a book called Leading From the Front by the late businessman John Barry. Here, the entrepreneur tells the story of how Muller & Phipps, a Zimbabwean-based distribution company, was hired to handle Cremora’s entry into the South African market in the mid-1970s.

According to Barry, very few people knew what the product was since coffee creamers were still a novel concept to southern Africans. Store managers were excited and ordered Cremora in large quantities to sell to middle-to upper-middle-class white homemakers. They were told that the product was a milk substitute in order to allay fears of it tasting artificial or bad.

A cinematic ad was released to get people excited about the brand but sales failed to take off. Customers complained that they could not find Cremora in their supermarkets, which caused the distribution company to investigate the matter further. They came to discover that having been told the product was almost like milk, store managers, naturally, had been placing it in the dairy section.

The error was immediately corrected when the distribution company solicited the services of marketing genius Graham de Villiers of the advertising agency De Villiers & Schönfeldt (DeV&S) to reintroduce the ad to the public.

It was De Villiers, according to Barry, who came up with the tagline that helped establish both the commercial, and Cremora, as household names.

The passage in the book makes for a pleasant story and wise marketing fable, but I remained unsure, mainly because there was nothing against which I could verify any of this information.

I also questioned whether Cremora, which came to South Africa in 1966, would still be a foreign item for people in the mid-1980s. But my dead ends seemed to come to an end when venerated brand consultant, strategist and critic Andy Rice confirmed from some of his peers from the time that BBDO SouthAfrica, which eventually became Net#work BBDO, had been responsible for the ad.

I wasn’t sure where that left Barry and his retelling of events – perhaps De Villiers was the sounding board whose voice managed to come out on top?

Having exhausted all these avenues, I made a brief return to the YouTube expat community just for old time’s sake. I noticed a turf war emerging in the comments section. It wasn’t based on race, PC culture, sentimentality about the segregation or curiosity about the copywriter behind the payoff line. Instead, these comments saw people who were loyal to their generation’s It’s Not Inside, It’s On Top debate, in a friendly yet competitive manner, about which commercial was better.

They displayed a level of enthusiasm and loyalty that was sweet and casual, if a little sentimental and soupy. But it was there that I found the answer to the burning question that had had me playing detective all around town. Whose (payoff) line is it anyway? Ours. All of ours.

This is an extract from It's Not Inside It's On Top: Memorable Moments In South African Advertising by Khanya Mtshali, published by Tafelberg, R320 recommended retail price.

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