What this shocking TV beer ad says about South Africa today

It's hard to think of a country whose advertising culture is as famous for pushing boundaries as is South Africa's, but this TV spot for a beer brand called Blink Stefanus might go a step further. The South African beer ad is above. Before you read my explanation, watch it for yourself, to really let the effect sink in.

Finished watching? In case you missed it, we are meant to understand that the woman's newborn baby is the product of an extramarital affair with a black man. That probably already sounds plenty offensive in the American context, but in the South African, it's laden with even deeper meaning.

First of all, the woman is speaking with an exaggerated Afrikaner accent, and the name she gives for her husband is stereotypically Afrikaner. Afrikaners were among South Africa's first white inhabitants, descendants of Dutch colonists who arrived centuries ago. Though not all Afrikaners supported apartheid, a number of them became the architects and leaders of South Africa's system of white supremacy. So the idea of an Afrikaner woman having a secret affair with a black African man is a touchy one, particularly given that apartheid advocates often cited exactly such fears as justification for keeping the races separate.

The idea that we're supposed to be scandalized by a white woman sleeping with a black man might seem outdated or even silly in the United States. The Supreme Court case that finally banned anti-miscegenation laws, Loving v. Virginia, is after all a half century old now. But apartheid only ended 18 years ago in South Africa, and racial politics there can still be quite thorny. The ad's dissonant soundtrack – and the decision to show video of two warthogs crawling under a fence when the narrator says of her baby "when he grows up and grows into his looks he'll look like his father" – seem designed to emphasize that we are supposed to find this situation unnerving.

The ad seems to play directly on, and maybe even reinforce, some of the ideas about race and sex that informed Afrikaner support for apartheid. Writing at the site Africa Is a Country, Maria Hengeveld explains the connection, which might sound familiar to students of pre-Civil Rights-era American attitudes about race:

[The ad includes] references to cuckolding/fears of white men’s impotency, and tired, old stereotypes about black virility. The advert speaks to the sexual fantasies that South Africans have about the “forbidden other,” and the continued attempts at denying those desires–even when presented with obvious evidence. But it also plays out apartheid-era propaganda about hypersexual black men, running about raping and impregnating helpless, hapless white women.

So, the obvious question: Why use this to try to sell beer? Though it's hard to imagine Budweiser making an ad playing on complicated racial politics, attention-grabbing advertisements that have little obvious connection to their product aren't so unfamiliar to us in the United States. And what better way to get people's attentions than by making jokes about politics?

South African advertising is known for being particularly brazen. A series of ads by Nando's, a fast food chain, got banned from some networks this June for telling "all you foreigners" to leave the country. The big difference, though, was that the ad was clearly attempting to mock rather than reinforce xenophobia, to transcend, by pointing out that just about everyone in South Africa could meet some definition of "foreigner." 

It's hard to see the joke in this beer ad as transcending anything. I don't know what the advertising company's intentions were. Hengeveld spoke to a representative of the firm, who mostly ducked her questions and insisted that the ad was "lighthearted and silly," without political meaning. Whether the ad was meant to defuse or to exploit apartheid-era white fears, the fact that anyone would even produce it is a reminder that the old, ugly ideas about race and sex that informed anti-miscegenation laws in the United States might still be a bit closer to the surface in South Africa.

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Max Fisher · December 20, 2012

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