Clicks hair advert fury: advertising chiefs' code of silence

Hair-ad outcry sparks moves to interrogate industry's 'problem'

13 September 2020 - 00:00 By JEFF WICKS and NIVASHNI NAIR
Clicks has come under fire over a hair ad. File image.
Clicks has come under fire over a hair ad. File image.
Image: Picture: SUPPLIED

The furore around the racist hair advert that sparked a week of protest action at Clicks stores across SA this week has put entrenched structural racism and "unconscious bias" in the advertising industry into sharp focus.

The retailer has borne the brunt of widespread condemnation of the TRESemmé advert, which featured a denigrating comparison of white and black hair, but the backlash has extended to the brand's multi-national distributor, Unilever, and the boutique advertising agency where the offensive campaign was born.

The Niche Guys, the agency that created the advert, closed ranks this week, with CEO Leigh Augustus declining to comment.

Executive director Cameron Krieger also delivered an emphatic "no comment" when contacted by the Sunday Times.

Senior executives at Unilever and Clicks who let the advert slip through on their watch have tendered their resignations, following the delisting of TRESemmé products by Clicks, Shoprite Checkers, Pick n Pay, Makro and Dis-Chem. Other junior executives are facing disciplinary action.

Creative consultant Ahmed Tilly, who has spent 25 years in the advertising industry, said every company that had a hand in producing the advert should be called to account.

"The work would have been seen by a number of different stakeholders from different companies and agencies. All of them are answerable for letting a racist piece of work see the light of day - irrespective of the race of individuals involved," he said.

The work would have been seen by a number of different stakeholders from different companies and agencies. All of them are answerable for letting a racist piece of work see the light of day.
Creative consultant Ahmed Tilly

"It's unfortunate that something like this had to happen.

"Racial biases and insensitivity in the media are something that need to be met with action, and the Clicks saga will help highlight the problem," Tilly said.

The EFF has been at the forefront of protest action against the advert, with party leader Julius Malema calling on his supporters to shutter 880 Clicks outlets.

Several shops were vandalised and 10 EFF members were arrested. Party MP Kenny Motsamai was handcuffed and is facing charges of assaulting a police officer and resisting arrest after a scuffle at a Clicks store in Evaton, near Vereeniging, on Tuesday.

Mike Abel, CEO and co-founder of agency M&C Saatchi Abel, said while transformation should continue to advance, the local industry had been widely transformed and it was unfair to make it "the whipping boy" over an incident in isolation.

"Every single day thousands of ads are posted across the country without incident, which probably translates to a 99.99% success rate . I do not believe our advertising is Eurocentric and it is deeply respectful of our society, and this looks like a witch-hunt," he said.

"The industry is transforming. There is a lot to be done, but we are on the front foot on that journey."

Abel said there was no question that the contentious ad was racist and insensitive.

"There always needs to be a high level of awareness, especially of unconscious bias, but to look at the South African ad agency as a whipping boy is fallacious."

He said a "critical awareness of unconscious bias" was needed at all times to prevent inadvertently playing into stereotypes or unintentionally offending.

The Advertising Regulatory Board received 10 complaints about the TRESemmé campaign, with CEO Gail Schimmel pointing to a need for educating the industry.

"We are looking very closely at what education we can offer the industry around the rules around discriminatory and offensive advertising because there clearly is a problem," she said.

Unilever, which had kept mum as the scandal evolved, issued an apology on Friday. "We were shocked to discover that we had supplied images for the Clicks website that portrayed black hair as inferior. This was racist and we apologise unreservedly," it said.

"We immediately began an investigation to understand what happened. At the same time, we began reviewing all the marketing campaigns and images in our South Africa portfolio to make sure they match our commitment to celebrate all beauty and promote diversity and inclusion."

The multibillion-rand firm will set up a diversity and inclusion committee and an advisory board stocked with internal and external experts "to review how our hair-care products in South Africa can offer consumers the solutions they want in positive and empowering terms".


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