South Africa’s Most Insensitive Ads

South Africa’s most insensitive adverts, perhaps unintentionally so. The purpose of this article to create awareness and a certain level of consciousness, sensitivity and empathy.

It almost takes a village to put together a TV commercial. It takes a multi-stakeholder community to pull it off, meaning, there are more hands that touch, and more eyes that see the work before it gets launched into market.

But somehow, South African ads manage to be insensitive, and the insensitivity has varying degrees. Some are outright disrespectful and tone deaf, and some are just anchored in ignorance.

It is so surprising that after 25 years of democracy, we still dont know each other. At the heart of advertising, is communication. This means that if ads are still insensitive and oblivious to people’s realities, we don’t know know how to communicate to each other. Meaning, we don’t know each other.

Below are examples of ads that prove that either the advertising industry is deliberately insensitive or it just doesn’t get it.

1. Med-Lemon – “Hardworking South Africans”

This is an ad that seeks to promote a functional benefit of Med-Lemon; which is, “works fast”, and the benefit therein is that you can “get back to work (and your normal self) fast”.

The target market is obviously black South Africans, and as we know, black South Africans are the hardest working group of people, with little remuneration for their efforts. You go to a restaurant, you are most likely to be met by a black waitress or waiter, you walk into Woolworths or Shoprite, there black tellers and merchandisers (obviously depending on where you are geographically, the demographic may alter or be different – but generally, you will find black). Black people work physically hard to earn minute salaries that are meant to stretch for longer and feed more mouths.

What has all of that got to do with a Med Lemon advert or Med Lemon? Everything. Whilst it is not Med Lemon’s nor any other brand’s responsibility to increase people wages nor to enforce healthy working conditions; it is every brand’s responsibility to be conscious (some may say ‘woke’) and cognizant of how they engage, connect, represent or reflect people and their lives in their brand communications.

The ad: Hardworking South Africans

Med-Lemon: Hardworking South Africans (YouTube)

In one of the scenes, we see what looks like a call-centre agent who looks miserable. She just needs to go home.

In the last scene, we see a security guard who has flu and or fever symptoms. If you know anything about security guards, you’ll know that they work around the clock nonstop (6pm to 6am or 6am to 6pm), and mostly work six (6) days a week. In the ad, we see the security guard looking weak, suffering from a cold and looking very feverish.

When a person is sick, they should go home, but what the advert advocates for and encourages, as a solution, is for the security guard and the call-centre lady to drink Med Lemon and voila, all becomes well and they (including the window washer) get back to work, no harm done.

What’s wrong with that you may ask? Well, if you know anything about the black labour force of South Africa, is that we are under paid and over worked. Being under paid means we have no choice but to keep working, because that’s the only way we can make ends meet. It’s a vicious cycle. You never have enough money, but you have to keep working to barely survive. More often than not, those who are lucky enough to work, feed more than one mouth (in other words; black tax), meaning, dependancy tends to be a burden and unavoidable. The implication therein is that there is pressure to keep working. The pressure to keep working is underpinned and fuelled by fear. The fear of losing a job is real, so real in fact that even when every circumstance in one’s personal life says, “today you shouldn’t go to work”, that fear will kick you up by the backside so hard that you end up being at work when you really shouldn’t. Even when someone is sick. Some people have been forced to show up at work after burying their parents.

Screen grab of the ‘call centre’ lady looking like she needs to go home, but Med-Lemon is about to fix her

So what?

Well, whilst the intention to demonstrate the power, functional and I suppose emotional benefit of drinking Med-Lemon may probably be innocent from the brands point of view, the ad unfortunately remains insensitive and ignorant to people’s realities.

Med-Lemon perpetuates the fear of staying at home when one is sick. This is no small issue. It is real, people feel forced and coerced to be at work at their worst, because they don’t want to lose their jobs. There’s a lot at stake for those who are underpaid in their jobs, so much so that they’d (we’d) rather sacrifice and compromise ourselves so that we can wake up another day to feed the ones we love.

If this issue feels like a fuss to you, don’t worry, I get it, you don’t get it.

2. MiWay – “Aircon Wars”

What in the world of South Africa did I just watch?

I’ll let you be the judge on this one. Unfortunately, with every insensitive advert, there is good intention behind it. I also see what they tried to do, but then again, just like Med-Lemon, MiWay tripped over it’s own ignorance and insensitivity. What may seem like a commercial or piece of communication that is based on an innocent truth, the underlying insight is always missed.

The reason black people “compromise” themselves in offices where they’d (we’d) rather bring extra clothing to wear on a hot summer’s day is not because we want to accommodate people in the office. The truth is; we are powerless. This a simple case of power dynamics. Those without power will always sacrifice or compromise themselves. Just like the Med Lemon example, the compromise or accommodation is based on fear.

3. Morvite – Give Me Strength

Oh God. Maybe this is fuelled by the #MeToo movement, #MuteRKelly, #PaulWarner, #HarveyWeinstein, #KaraboMokoena. Maybe the ad is not so bad, but slightly different to Med Lemon and MiWay, Morvite is making light of sexual harassment.

Morvite TVC: ‘Give Me Strength’ – Just You Model and Artist Management

In one of the scenes, we see a woman being uncomfortably sexualised by a clearly older man, who is eating his cereal as he winks (eyes her in a creepy way) at the woman. Just look at his eyes in the screen grab below. Yes, he is acting and this is not a real thing, but think about this for a moment; what was the brief by the director to the actor? Also, what was the script from the agency? How was this scene described? This is how unethical and unprofessional behaviour gets normalised in society. We joke and laugh about it, and we even have ads about it.

Screen grab from the the Morvite TVC – Give Me Strength

Instead of being given strength by Morvite to get through the day, what the woman needs is go to an HR manager and report the old man for sexual harassment. This is how sexual harassment gets downplayed in the workplace. I’m not sure if the ad is trying to be funny or humorous in that seen, but sexual harassment or the sexualization of women (and some may argue men too) is a serious issue.

Why is this important?

Advertising is a powerful tool. Whilst we see it as a means to sell products and services, subconsciously, advertising manipulates how we see the world, how we see ourselves in the world, and what we think we choose to see.

I wrote an entire piece where I speak about the power of advertising, in it I referenced Castle Lager.

Ever wondered how Diamonds ended up being a girl’s best friend? You guessed it, advertising and marketing. You can read about that too in the aforementioned article.

Last but not least, if you are still not sure of the power of advertising (which we now know to be false advertising), watch the Netflix documentary; “FYRE: The greatest party that never happened”.

Image result for fyre festival doc poster
FYRE Documentary Poster | Netflix: Reddit

Why This Article

The purpose of the article is not to cause racial divide but to draw attention to the fact that if you as a brand are going to target a specific demographic, you need not only know what to do to do or say, but also what not to do or say.

Of course, if we were to go back in time, there are definitely more ads that one can think of that could be deemed as insensitive, but these are my top three (3) for recent times.

Thank you for reading. I would love to hear and see your thoughts and opinions in the comments section. I hope that you enjoyed reading this piece, and if you felt something reading this, or that one thing stuck with you, please share it.

If you’d like to discuss your brand, please contact me:

LinkedIn: Bogosi Motshegwa

Twitter: @Thinkerneur


  1. Wow! great piece. The more the add is controversial, the more it becomes interesting for consumers, because we notice it. I personally thought the Mi-way one was funny, it is what is currently happening in the office but we are more vocal. It could’ve been more tolerable if the black lady switched off the air-con to see how the white lady reacts to the temperature.


    1. Wow :-). Thank you so much, Tumi. Kea leboga. Thank you for the feedback.

      I hear what you saying about it being funny, but it’s real out here. When it happens, it isn’t funny anymore.


  2. Can you really expect ads to solve the big problems of South Africa Bogosi? The issues you mention are real but not really up to the brand owner to solve.

    I think the problems of the country are offensive- not the ads you highlight.

    Your article would also have more impact with better spelling… viola, viscous etc.


    1. Thank you so much, Geoff. I will edit the typos. I really appreciate your feedback.

      My angle was that perhaps brands can be more conscious and sensitive. Brands are not accountable for the country’s issues, but I think that brands are responsible for they communicate.

      Thanks, Geoff.


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