Is political correctness crippling creativity in the marketing and advertising industry?

Published by Snaye Mdubu


3 February 2023

My business unit manager recently gave me a book entitled “It’s not inside, it’s on top”, by Khanya Mtshali. This writer and cultural critic has brought me a warm cup of nostalgia with a few teaspoons of critical review, cultural commentary, and some sweet humour to keep me sipping. Through a balanced mix of academic research, Khanya’s personal reflections and industry practitioner interviews, the book provides a critical analysis on the evolution of South African advertising from the 1980s to mid-2000s. The author delves into some of the misses and successes of how brands aimed to align themselves with democratic transformations in South Africa.

The book got me reflecting and thinking about socio-cultural dynamics in our industry. I recently saw 947’s radio personality Anele Mdoda share a tweet criticising BMW for their latest campaign. The ad features a black woman standing next to one of the brand’s latest BMW 5 Series models. Displayed behind her is the phrase: “We Are Our Are Ancestors Wildest Dreams”. The word “ancestors” is crossed out. The controversial marketing campaign instigated a debate on social media, with many calling the advert offensive and racist.

Is it? Is it a misinterpretation of what the vehicle company was trying to communicate?

I had to Google the word “ancestors” after such debate, and according to the Cambridge Dictionary: “ancestors are any member of your family from long ago, for example the grandparents of your grandparents.” Is the term limited to a specific race? In a world that preaches and encourages authenticity, do we really want to hear people’s real views? How I personally interpreted the ad, is that the company is referring to the production of their past vehicles, and their old models as ancestors, not necessarily to Africans.

It's not unheard of to see people bashing the South African Advertising industry about a lack of innovation. Recently I was watching the Group Creative Officer and Founding Partner of Joe Public United, Pepe Marais being interviewed on the Byline Channel on YouTube saying, “Probably 95% of South African advertising is terrible in terms of calibre and resonance.” Is it because we are not innovative, or we are being held back by the world and society? Is South African creativity hindered because creatives are constantly cautious of being politically incorrect? Is sensitivity valued more than the BMW truth? How long will people censor themselves?

By the way, I loved the BMW ad and it resonated with me as a Gen Z consumer, especially after watching their social media campaign #Generationjoy. t unpacked the thinking behind their OOH campaign. It embodies authenticity and encourages individuality – core values that resonate with our generation.

So, how do we better resonate with our generation?