Racism in the Advertising- FXI/NCRF Policy Unit Presentation to the Portfolio Committee on Communications
The view that there is racism within the advertising industry is premised on two major observations. Firstly, there is an acknowledgement that racism has come to characterise almost every facet of life in South Africa. Secondly, it is based on a growing, or should we say consolidated view, that the media has to rely largely on advertising for its sustenance.
Whereas most discussions on advertising starts with a view that racism is wrong and that it is correct to fight it, the second basic premise identified above is always treated as a given. Hence the view that develops from a reconciliation of the two premises is that there is need to remove racism out of advertising. The conclusion that is reached is that once cleansed of racism then advertising in itself does not pose any problem. While this conclusion is logical for some it is our view that there is a serious problem with advertising.
The approach that we adopt is that of looking at the other side of the coin. We have repeatedly asked ourselves, researched, and finally came up with a question; is there indeed nothing wrong with advertising? This is our broad approach- to problematise advertising.
Our presentation is divided into three broad categories. Firstly, we will share with you the preliminary findings of the current research project undertaken by the Policy Unit into advertising trends for community radio. Secondly, we will examine the implications of advertising for both public and community media and the lessons that can be learned with regard to freedom of expression. Lastly, we will advance some secondary and primary recommendations that can be considered in order to address the problem of advertising. It must be clear to everyone that our presentation will go beyond the scope of these hearings.
Advertising for Community Radio
Asked what his views were on the advertisers’ disregard of community radio a leading media activist replied: "Community radio is regarded as ghetto media". This statement summarises the attitude of advertisers towards community radio. More importantly, the statement summarises the frustrations that are felt by many community radio stations that struggle to attract advertising revenue.
A number of observations emerged in interviews with station managers and marketing officers of community radio stations.
The Impact of Delays in the Issuing of four-year License for Community Radio
At the beginning of 2001 the Policy Unit conducted a study that looked into the effects of the delays by ICASA in issuing four-year broadcast licenses for community radio stations. The main impact on stations, according to that study, was the effect that the delays had on the stations’ ability to attract advertising. That point has come out again in the current study. Many stations struggle to attract advertising revenue because marketers are hesitant to enter into medium and long-term agreements on advertising with stations whose future prospects remain uncertain.
Ignorance or Lack of Interest
Community radio is a fairly new medium. It would seem that marketers and advertisers do not as yet understand the potential that community radio has and the extent to which many stations have established themselves within their communities. Yet, it must be pointed out that while it can be said that marketers still need to learn more about this new medium there are indications that they have learned very quickly and moved on to use other new medium such as outdoors advertising, i.e. transport advertising, billboards, sports advertising, and even internet advertising. It is therefore difficult to understand why they have not yet identified the potential of community radio.
Unscrupulous Agencies who take Advantage of Community Radio Stations
There are a number of cases where it was discovered that agencies took advantage of community radio stations. We must however concede that we still have to measure the extent to which this practice occurs. At the moment it is difficult to generalise it. It must be mentioned though that a number of brokers have emerged claiming to be representing the best interests of community radio. These brokerages act between the stations and the agencies. A number of them have been discovered to be charging very high fees for bringing in advertising revenue for stations.
Part of the problem why this is happening is that the processes of acquiring new business in the advertising chain by an agency and how it must be shared between the agency and the station is not clear. There are no clear regulations or agencies and brokers do not observe the existing regulations. The NCRF has had to intervene in cases where there was evidence of clear rip-offs by brokers.
The worst example of these kinds of rip-offs was that of a news service that introduced a barter system with a number of community radio stations. What would happen is that news would be provided to stations on the condition that the stations would give the service the right to market the station to different marketers and receive the revenue on behalf of the stations. But instead of passing the revenue to the stations they (the service) would not do that. Besides the fact that that constituted undue practice on the side of the news service what was more problematic was that the value of the news served to the stations was not disclosed. Neither was the amount that the service received "on behalf’" of the stations. It is possible that the service received more than it served to the stations. Again the NCRF had to intervene in order to stop the practice.
What is clear from all these cases is that there are organisations that are taking advantage of the low levels of knowledge that is sometimes found within a number of stations.
Differential Treatment for Black and White Stations
There are thin lines between black and white stations in terms of the audiences they broadcast to. Our observation is that, as a result of the apartheid Group Areas legislation, almost all black stations broadcast exclusively to black audiences. This is purely due to the fact that when the Group Areas Act was repealed there was only a negligible number of white people who moved into black areas. On the other hand many black people have moved into formerly white areas. This therefore allows largely white stations to have a mixed audience.
Our findings are that stations that serve an exclusive black audience are unable to generate enough revenue to be able to run their stations in a manner that they would like to. They struggle to pay their staff or even give them enough regular stipends. They also struggle to pay their rentals, telephones, have good computers, and other necessary means to enable them to have smooth broadcasting operations.
On the other hand stations that are largely white are able to generate sufficient operational income. The average annual income for a largely white station is R1, 2 million while that for black stations is R100 000.
It is difficult for us not to conclude that these are not indicators that there is racism. Yet, it must be pointed out that most stations are served by the same agency. The question that needs to be answered is whether it is agencies that decide which station to place advertisements on or whether it is the marketers (producers) who make those decisions. Indications are it is marketers who make such decisions. Again, another question becomes; what is the criteria used by marketers to place advertisements on station (in this case mainly on stations that are largely white) and not on other stations?
There are a number of hypotheses that can be developed when trying to understand these patterns. Firstly, it can be argued that the geographical location of these stations is a determining factor. Secondly it can be argued that marketers make their decisions based on the LSM categories of the stations’ audiences.
While these two possible factors might sound convincing, it is again difficult to accept the LSM categorisation rational as the most important factor used to make decisions. Firstly, as a number of people have already pointed out, the LSM categorisation is not a reliable indicator of the buying power of audiences that listen to a particular station. A simple observation that can be advanced against the LSM categorisation is that of Soweto. There are more luxury German sedans in this township than there are in many places. Yet, advertising revenue for a station like Jozi FM, which is situated in Soweto, is very low.
It is difficult for us not to conclude that there is indeed some form of racism that is practiced by marketers when making decisions to place adverts.
Suppression of Freedom of Expression
Another interesting finding that we were able to make was that in some case advertisers sought to influence the programme content of stations. In one station advertisers had complained about a critical, outspoken, yet very competent black presenter. The advertisers demanded that the station should remove the presenter before they could place adverts on the station. They also complained about the playing of "black music" which did not suit their taste.
As a compromise, the station partnered the said presenter with a white presenter. They also removed "hard black music". For some this might be considered as an isolated incident. It is however our view that one or even ten such incident cannot be considered to be isolated.
The most important point to be made here is that such incidents have serious implications for freedom of expression. They show how over-reliance on advertising can compromise journalistic ethic and independence of the media and free speech. How else do we have to understand that while advertisers continue to support stations that broadcast in very unpalatable language and yet on the other hand they seem to want to control critical debate in other stations? Is it a case of white people not having a problem or even supporting "kicking and screaming" black articulation that is, to say the very least, degrading? One cannot help but see this in the same way that white audiences would support kicking and screaming black poets and yet not support those who write and perform radical, critical poetry that is able to intelligently articulate the condition of the black working class.
For some of us there seems to be a stereotypical picture of a black person as a angry, directionless, screaming, and kicking person who speaks with an American accent but having no content and unable to educate and inform his/her listeners and also lacking the ability to conduct an intelligent and erudite discussion or debate. This is another form of racism that needs to be exposed and dealt with.
Lack of support from the Government
Another finding that we have come across is that there is not enough support from the government for the community radio sector. Here, we are not arguing for the state to give the stations subsidies as such. We acknowledge that the Department of Communications has played a significant role and still continues to do so by providing stations with broadcast equipment.
What we are arguing for is that there is a need for the state to enter into specific working partnerships with stations. The country is currently facing a number of health and social problems. Aids, cholera, illiteracy, are but some of the many problems faced by the country. The state can enter into partnerships with stations by providing money for the production of specific programmes such as cholera prevention. We must of course say that there are stations that have benefited from entering into these kind of partnerships with different departments, especially in Kwa-Zulu Natal, where these stations received earmarked funding to produce health, road safety, and education programmes. However, our observation is that these seem to happen with stations that have highly skilled marketing officers who are able to compile impressive proposals to the different government departments. What about those with no skills to produce such impressive proposals? Are we ignoring our people for not having the skills while we all understand that that is not their fault but a direct result of a legacy that we are trying to confront and undo?
These observations bring us to the second section of our presentation. Should the media, particularly the public broadcaster and community radio, overly rely on advertising?
Advertising: A Panacea for the Media?
The post-1994 political environment and the processes that preceded it and came after it, and indeed, influenced, shaped and finally came to characterise it, is premised on a problematic wholesome acceptance of the following fundamental errors.
Firstly, there is general, yet wrong, acceptance or conclusion, that there is nothing wrong with the market rule.
If we agree that the media, particularly public broadcasting, has to educate, inform and entertain, then this market-think will lead us to the conclusion that the education and information functions of public broadcasting will be subjected to the dictates of the market which will manifest themselves in attempts to commodify the media. The big question then becomes, and it is a question that the portfolio committee has to address; if the media is commodified, whose interests will be served? What would be the implications for access to information, education, and freedom of expression? Whose mandate will the media serve and who will benefit from that mandate?
The second observation that is there for everyone to also see is that, like other aspects of the economy, it is not surprising that the advertising industry is racist. This for us is not surprising because the post-1994 agenda is still grappling with economic inequality. Advertising, just like media control, is still largely white. No need to elaborate on that. A lot of work, as we understand, is going on in trying to reverse this situation. But what do we mean when we say that wholesome acceptance of advertising as a panacea for media survival and growth can and does amount to commodification?
To obtain answers for the above question we need to turn our attention to the experience of the United States. In his book titled Made Possible By: The Death of Public Broadcasting in the United States, James Ledbetter, gives a detailed account of how the shift towards a public broadcast sector that relies on advertising led to the public broadcast service (PBS) and the national public radio (NPR) cutting on their education and information services. Instead, there was an increase of entertainment programmes in the form of music, soapies, game shows, and informecials. While a more detailed study on the percentage of these forms of programming on the public broadcaster still needs to be undertaken, it would not be totally wrong to develop a hypothesis that this is the direction that the SABC is taking.
The increase of this programming format is not surprising. We would like to argue that it is not by accident that we see these developments at SABC television. It is also not by accident that we see that SABC radio stations are turning more and more into music stations. This is what the market dictated for the US PBS and NPR. This is what the market will eventually dictate to SABC radio stations.
According to Ledbetter the market in the US wanted less critical analysis of the state of the nation, be it critical debates around national politics, the corporate world, or simply programmes that dealt with important community news.
The development of this latest arrangement is arguably mediated by the corporatisation of the SABC that does not only involve attempts to run the broadcaster as a business but that is also characterised by commercialisation of the corporation.
The problem with corporatisation is not simply that the broadcaster will be managed like a business but the main problem is that the driving motive will be to chase profits instead of rendering services. Like we have already argued this leads to a commodification of a public entity, controlled effectively by market forces rather that the public. In this case we see the "public good" principle being replaced by a rationalist market driven argument. But what is wrong with this, some may ask?
As already pointed out the main problem is that the education and information functions of the broadcaster will be compromised. But much more importantly, there are two other implications that will arise out of these developments.
Firstly, there are problems for freedom of expression. It is possible, if not inevitable, that the content of the broadcaster will have to be tailored according to the needs of the market. Honest media analysts will agree that any move to maximise profits will imply "giving the market what it wants". The practical implication here is that if advertisers are not satisfied with particular programming formats they might choose not to "enter into business" with the broadcaster. What then will the broadcaster do?
There are two choices that media houses face when presented with the above scenario. They can choose to ignore or resist the threats of advertisement withdrawal and therefore loose "the much needed" revenue. Or, they can choose to meet and satisfy the requirements of the broadcaster and adjust their target audiences to meet certain LSM categories and therefore receive revenue, or adjust their programmes in such a way that this "satisfy" the needs of the advertisers. In that way there will be self-regulated changes that the broadcaster will be introducing.
Given the fact that the SABC is the largest media house in the country with the largest audience that the advertisers cannot afford to ignore or loose, the possibility is that the broadcaster will regulate itself to meet the needs of the advertisers rather than advertisers placing any particular pressure on it.
The above route is likely to have an implication for internal freedom of expression. We can cite two examples that indicate editorial interference by advertisers. The first one is that of a Sunday paper whose editor informed us that there is a complaint from the sales team of the paper who say that advertisers are scared by the long feature articles that the paper carries. They are also not "too happy" with the "heavy content" of the articles. Effectively what that means is that the paper will have to not only reduce the length of the articles but also dilute their content.
The second example is that of a community radio station that has already "toned down" their content because advertisers complained about this. As already said earlier in this paper, after toning down the contents of their programmes and making them less critical and political, advertisers "gave the station more business". Currently the station is one of the most successful community radio stations with regard to the ability to generate advertising revenue.
It may be said that these two examples are isolated. We still have to study how generalisable they are. It is however undeniable that they are very illustrative.
What these tell us is that a wholesome surrender to advertisers has the potential of inhibiting freedom of expression, a right that many died for.
Another implication of surrendering the media to the market is that it will effectively cut public participation from the affairs of the broadcaster. We need to remind ourselves that the broad political promise after 1994 was to turn the SABC into a public broadcaster, from a state ideological apparatus. It is logical that one would expect that that project should still be underway. Yet, it is becoming clear that instead of implementing that post-1994 agenda the broadcaster has jumped that stage and is now commercialising its operations. So, the public is only as important as it pays television licenses.
The same can be said about community media. While this new medium is still teething, it is being forced to take the commercial route rather than its intended community oriented position.
It is clear to us that while some might want to ask; how can we de-racialise the advertising industry, the fundamental problems about advertising and what it can do to the media and its mandate are being ignored. It is arguably not wrong to ask if the market should regulate itself. But it may be more important to ask to what extent can the market be allowed to play a role in the media. This for us is the main question that needs to be addressed.
What can be done? Some Recommendations
There are number of secondary interventions that might be considered in an attempt to address the problem of racism within the advertising industry. We say secondary because, like we said earlier on, the fundamental question that needs to be addressed is the influence that the market (advertising) has on the media, particularly public and community media.
The industry needs to be monitored. While other stakeholders have argued that a more representative body comprising of advertisers, marketers, and the media needs to be formed, it is our view that such a body will lack a very important component of the media circle- listeners and readers. Our concrete suggestion is that there is a need for a conscious effort to involve listeners, not just as peripheral players but more importantly as a component part of a ‘watchdog’ group. The main function of this group will be to hold all players within the industry accountable. Monitoring must include ensuring that there is transformation within the industry itself and more importantly to ensure that there is equity in terms of how adspend is distributed across different media houses. This body must be independent from the government.
The most important element of this recommendation is that there needs to be an independent effort, by civil society groups and the broader social movement, to engage in the debates and processes of how advertising is run in the country. If done well, such a process and development, while new and untested, can begin to challenge the elitist and exclusionary manner in which this topic is being treated.
ICASA must expedite the licensing process. As noted earlier in this submission the delays by ICASA to issue many community radio stations with broadcast licenses have led to these stations not being able to generate adequate advertising revenue that would enable them to operate professionally. It is our observation that, while noting that even in cases where stations have four-year licenses there are general problems of marginalisation of community radio, the granting of four-year licenses shall assist in building the confidence and commitment of advertisers to build partnerships with community stations. For more on how ICASA can expedite the process see www.fxi.org.za/cmrn/index.htm
The GCIS must develop a comprehensive strategy of forming partnerships with community radio stations. As said earlier in this submission the GCIS can play a pivotal role in assisting stations by sponsoring a number of programmes that will not simply assist them to generate adequate operational funds but will, most importantly, assist them to offer relevant and educational programming for the communities.
ICASA must develop a monitoring mechanism. We concede that this might fall outside the mandate of ICASA. However, we believe that given the central role that it plays, the regulator cannot divorce itself from the debates around advertising. It must be possible for the regulator, in the light of the fact that this might not be its central role, to develop working partnerships with the monitoring body that is suggested in recommendation One above.
The above recommendations are what we term secondary intervention mechanisms. For us the most critical issue to be addressed is whether the advertising must be a panacea of the media. Our answer, as we have already suggested, is a clear no. While we do not necessarily oppose advertising, and in fact recognise the fact the it has got an important role to play, we do not, on the other hand, believe that both the community and public media, must be wholly surrendered to the dictates of advertising.
We note that it is mainly because of the countries macro-economic policies that, amongst others, insist on and impose austerity measures on budget allocations of social sectors like public broadcasting, that we see the rising in importance of advertising for both the public broadcaster and the community radio sector. This observation leads us to a conclusion that above everything and beyond all considerations, the most important step to be taken is to rethink the GEAR policy. Like we have already said, this will require that debates around the media (and advertising) need to be taken out to the broader public. Failure to do so will only mean that such debates remain elitist and ignore the very people that the media is aimed at.
For the Policy Unit, the most important challenge is to popularise these debates. The time has never been more opportune for us to ensure that ordinary people gain ownership of the media, particularly the public broadcaster and the community media.