Chicken Licken advert: Colonialism? What colonialism?
Times Select sits in on appeal hearing where ad agency defends the controversial Big Mjohnana advert
The Chicken Licken advert called Big Mjohnana, which caused a stir last year following a complaint that it was offensive, was in actual fact not about colonialism at all.
That is according to Pepe Marais, the founding partner of advertising agency Joe Public, who tried to convince the Advertising Regulatory Board (ARB) on Wednesday it was wrong to have ordered the withdrawal of the advert.
Marais, whose agency has been producing Chicken Licken adverts for three years, argued it in no way alluded to colonialism, but was rather about discovering a new land.
In the advert, a young man called Big Mjohnana leaves his village in 1650 on a boat to satisfy his hunger for adventure and discovers Europe and a man looking like Jan van Riebeeck in 1651.
In December, the advertising review board ruled that the advert be pulled from the air after a viewer called Sandile Cele complained it “makes a mockery of the struggles of the African people against the colonisation by the Europeans in general, and the persecutions suffered at the hands of the Dutch in particular”. The board said colonialism was not something to be laughed at.
But Marais said the advert was not about the slavery and colonialism, but about an adventure meant to inspire South Africans.
“By definition, the commercial is 60 seconds. Ninety percent of the 60 seconds shows Big Mjohnana travelling, doing amazing things, feeding a panther on an island, fighting with a jellyfish. It is completely like a fantasy land.
“And in the end he just so happens to land on the shore of a foreign land. This is the only part of the commercial that could potentially refer to colonisation,” he told the appeal board, chaired by Gcina Malindi SC.
Three representatives from the advertising industry, Elouise Kelly, Mxolisi Buthelezi and Jarred Cinman, are also on the appeal board and heard the arguments at the ARB’s national office in Bryanston, Johannesburg.
Marais said in the two weeks that the advert aired before being pulled, it had reached four million viewers – and not one person mentioned colonialism in any feedback until the ARB ruled against the advert. “Before that, factually there was zero, but zero talk, [about colonialism].”
The only negative comment about the ad on Facebook out of 1,300 comments was that Chicken Licken was “too salty”.
Xolisa Dyeshana, who is executive creative director and partner at Joe Public, told the panel they looked at multiple definitions of colonialism to see if their advert had any of its characteristics, such as violence, slavery and domination.
“We looked at a few definitions so that we weren’t depending on one.
“[One colonialisation definition is] a method of absorbing and assimilating foreign people into the culture of the imperial country and thus destroying any remnant of the culture that threatens the imperial territory.”
Dyeshana added: “The point we are trying to make is that nowhere in our ad does it refer to anything like that.”
The panel chairperson pointed out that colonialism, slavery and violence started with the discovery of land.
“We know that people who eventually colonise parts of worlds … they were on journeys of discovery. They get the product they want – but they decide to settle and colonialise. Viewed as whole, you can see pointers of colonisation in the advert," said Malindi.
Then Marais finally conceded there were clues suggesting colonialism, but that the advert was not about colonialism.
“We are saying, he just discovered land. He is not going into the action of wiping out the Dutch or their culture.
“If the ad started with Big Mjohnana saying, this is Europe, and then he moves in [and starts] kicking out all the whites out of Europe, [and] changing their culture, of course we would be in serious trouble here.”
Their main argument was that the advert was not offensive and only one person – who may just have been having a bad day – complained. He should not be overruled by 96% of those polled who didn’t find it offensive.
After the advert was banned, Joe Public set out to do market research in a wide variety of South Africans of different genders, races and income groups on their views on the advert.
Marais: “Our main case is objectivity versus subjectivity. One consumer had a subjective negative view.” This person complained to the advertising regulatory board.
“We responded [in argument] with thousands having a subjective positive view. That was not strong enough as a case.”
So “we conducted research to objectively show that the vast majority see this as positive and not offensive against one person who might on that day be having a bad day”.
Members of the panel asked questions that suggested broader sides of the debate on offence and freedom of speech.
Cinman wanted to know what place humour had in society and when potentially offensive topics could be joked about.
“There is a lot of support and a precedent for humour being a legitimate way to engage with society. It’s OK to be satirical ...
“Let’s assume this is about colonialism. It’s set in the same period. Could you help us strengthen the point about why it is important that we have satire and we have humour, even if it is about somewhat sensitive topics in our society?”
Marais said their argument was not to defend humour.
“We are not making a case for satire or let’s laugh at things that are atrocities or anything like that. That is not the driving force behind what we are making.”
Marais also said adverts should not be too tightly regulated.
“If we start over-governing what people should think in a world in which people don’t think enough, you will take the essence out of the ad industry.”
The appeals board is expected to make its ruling within two weeks.
Cele, who laid the complaint, has not spoken in public about the controversy surrounding the advert and has not been reachable for comment.