In the rainbow nation, this ad is not quite black & white | india | Hindustan Times
Today in New Delhi, India
Apr 22, 2018-Sunday
New Delhi
  • Humidity
  • Wind

In the rainbow nation, this ad is not quite black & white

A billboard asking people to buy a detergent that ‘gives people the whiteness to shine’ is insensitive to say the least, writes Anand Vasu.

india Updated: Sep 21, 2009 23:29 IST
Anand Vasu

You imagine she’d have a voice like Aretha Franklin, deep and powerful, singing from the soul. The billboard advertising Surf detergent sticks out on the side of the road, a bright relief to the discoloured and dilapidated rows of low-cost housing that make up the township of Soweto, some 15 kilometres from Johannesburg.

On either side of the hoarding are depressing posters, one advertising a clinic for people who have tested positive for HIV and another a helpline for those with suicidal tendencies.

What’s scarcely believable is the tagline of the poster. The visual is a simple one, a black woman in unnaturally white clothes, holding a karaoke microphone and grinning so wide that the advertisement could well be for toothpaste.

The power of clean clothes, courtesy Surf, gives her the confidence to sing, we’re led to believe.

In a country that continues to struggle with race relations, the words accompanying the picture are either deliberately chosen to provoke or the handiwork of an incredibly naïve copywriter. “The whiteness to stand up and be heard,” screams the advert. “Surf gives you the whiteness to shine.”

The woman in the picture seems to think she has reason to smile. But she certainly would not have known what words would go with her picture when she posed for the ad.

If she saw that her advert in Soweto, a black neighbourhood, was a virtual endorsement that whiteness somehow makes you better, the smile might have disappeared from her face quite quickly.

In India, we’re now so saturated with adverts for fairness creams that promote the same line of thinking that it barely registers anymore.

In South Africa, where black and white are not just colours, the insensitivity of the advert beggared belief.