Surf washes bad news copy whiter than white

“My whites work for me.” That’s one of the many risqué lines Surf used in a brave ad campaign that recently saturated the Daily Sun, and poked fun at the medium and SA’s racial divide. But when a cringe-worthy release from Surf’s agency JWT started appearing on local news sites, Unilever was not amused. After carrying the story for a few days, a couple of news sites hit delete when JWT asked them to expunge all record of the story. By MANDY DE WAAL.

Something was definitely up when news and marketing sites deleted a story about a sizeable campaign Surf ran in the Daily Sun last Friday. Surf had done something brave by parodying their legendary position on whiteness in a series of ads in SA’s most popular tabloid. The series of 12 ads ran through the paper and rather cheekily included bold headlines that read: “Whites are suffering”, “I am jealous of the whites next door”, “Most of my friends are white”, “Is it because she’s whiter than me?” and “My whites work for me”.

The campaign was created by JWT, and on the Thursday before the campaign launched JWT’s spin doctors sent out a media release saying: “Be prepared to have your understanding of whiteness challenged as a tongue-in-cheek pro-white campaign by JWT Johannesburg targets readers of the Daily Sun.”

The release by Owlhurst Communications quotes Diane Fraser, business unit director at JWT Johannesburg, “It is possible that you are the whitest person you know right now, even if your name is Tshabalala.” (Ouch.) JWT gives itself a firm pat on the back by saying how humorous and edgy the campaign is, before Fraser rubs in the praise with another quotable quote: “Surf is the number one washing powder for guaranteed whiteness and it’s back with a new campaign that is sure to get tongues wagging as we encourage Daily Sun readers to be ‘whiter’ than everyone else.”

The campaign is hardly original because people have been satirising that “whiter than white” pay off line since Verwoerd separated colours. Where the campaign is brave and innovative, is in terms of the social statement it makes about the Daily Sun. It is also brave in that it attempts to get people to laugh at the racial stereotypes they use, which in the fraught tenseness of race relations in South Africa must be applauded .

That PR release is, however, another story. But even badly written releases are good fodder for most marketing sites, and that’s how the story found itself almost verbatim into Financial Mail’s “AdFocus”, along with a couple of other sites. The weekend came and went, and on Monday a rather sheepish Owlhurst started doing the rounds asking the news and marketing sites that carried the story to please remove it.

FM gladly complied without even knowing why. “I had a request to remove the story, but I am still waiting to hear what the reason is. I don’t know the reason yet because I am waiting for the PR people to get back to me,” said “AdFocus” editor David Furlonger. When questioned about whether it was standard FM policy to pull stories when PRs request this, a tetchy Furlonger said: “This was my decision and I am not going into the rights and wrongs of my decisions. I pulled the story because it wasn’t well written.” When asked why the FM published a badly written story and then pulled it, the editor got even grumpier and said. “We were in a rush at the time and I was on deadline. Listen I am deadline[sic], I don’t have time for this.” He then put the phone down.

The story was also readily deleted by Media Update which in a tweet said: “We pulled it pending clarity from the PR, which we now have, and are working on a piece engaging with the issue.” The site, however, neglected to tell readers why the story was pulled at the time.

iMaverick put in a call to JWT’s Fraser and it appeared she too was not in the best of moods. When asked about the campaign, Fraser replied “I will have to say no comment. No comment,” before putting the phone down.

The Surf story is hardly ground-breaking or paramount to the future socio-political survival of this country, but the fact that a publication like FM would delete it without informing its readers why it was doing so raises issues of editorial integrity.

If you extend this editorial decision-making process to the political sphere it becomes plausible to wonder what would happen if Floyd Shivambu had phoned the FM and said: “You know that story about Botswana. Well, our bad. We’d like that deleted from your site and will let you know why a bit later. Ta muchly.” Sounds implausible, but if editors are deleting stories at whim, where do you draw the line?

Herman Manson, editor of edgy marketing site, MarkLives, who first alerted iMaverick to the Surf situation says this editorial decision is concerning because it positions online news media as an environment where people can remove a story from what is public record without explanation. “After publication editors have a responsibility to inform readers about the changes they make to a story, or about removing a story. This policy comes from the traditional print policy which states that if it is in print, it becomes a matter of editorial{sic} record.”

Online media who want the same credibility as printed newspapers need to have the transparency and integrity to act in accordance with the same journalistic standards. “You can’t just delete a story at whim. Where would this lead us if every site did that? What if that someone in government made a request for a story to be deleted? Would an editor allow them to do that?”

William Bird, director of Media Monitoring Africa, says the matter raises ethical issues. “If the ANC realised the error of its ways with regards to Botswana, would they be right in asking to remove statements to this effect from news web sites? If news sites put up something that was wrong or ill advised, they need to make changes through updates. To simply remove stories without offering any context or comment is concerning,” says Bird.

“This is a similar issue to that of images that are deleted because the media get complaints from readers and decide to remove the image to stem these complaints. The issue is about process and explanation, and about acting in a manner that is ethical,” he says. “If you follow a standard of journalism where you tell the truth as fully as possible, and then go and remove stories or photographs from your site willy-nilly, it is unethical,” says Bird.

One site that didn’t bow to PR pressure was BizCommunity, which ironically runs PR offices on its site yet has a strong policy when it comes to changing stories after they’ve been published. “We can’t take out a story without giving a reason to our readers,” says Simone Puterman, managing editor of BizCommunity.

“What I have been trying to do is be transparent and show corrections with strike outs, and indicate updates at the bottom of the story. Online media is so easy to change and it is easy to change facts that other media may be quoting. Unless you are transparent and show what has changed, you are doing yourself a disservice. That is important for record, but more importantly as a matter of editorial integrity.”

Puterman says she was under some pressure to remove the piece. “I told the PR person that they would have to put up a retraction rather than leaving it there. If it was a press office, it could be different, but it is an editorial piece that has been up since Friday.”

So why was the PR agency so desperate to get the offending copy removed? Owlhurst states that the release wasn’t approved by Unilever.

The British-Dutch multinational now says it had second thoughts about the campaign. “Surf Washing Powder has always been famous for its whitening power,” a statement from Unilever to iMaverick read. “Our advertisement that appeared in the Daily Sun on Friday, 19 August, aimed to be tongue in cheek, while communicating the efficacy of the Surf brand to our consumers. However, given the issues that have arisen in the past weeks, Unilever felt the campaign may be taken as offensive by some of our consumers. Hence we have decided to replace it with a standard campaign.”

It’s a pity the brand managers at Surf are so skittish because Twitter feedback on the ad was, for the most part, positive. Cartoonist Jerm (@mynameisjerm) tweeted: “Actually, while opportunistic, it’s funny. Of course, politically correct sheeple will get all offended and stuff.” iMaverick’s own Sipho Hlongwane (@comradesipho) said on Twitter: “Black guys were having a fat laugh about it over the weekend. I don’t think it’s a big deal. Lazy, not insensitive.”

Journalist, author and satirical writer Gus Silber says JWT’s play on whiteness is hardly original. “That Surf line has been used so often particularly in the apartheid days by the anti-government spectrum. Every satirist worth his salt had a gag about Surf washing whites, whiter. It was an obvious point of amusement, particularly with the play on separating your whites from other colours. It’s just such an obvious metaphor.

“What does work about the campaign is that they’re also having a laugh at the medium and the Daily Sun style. For a brand play this gives the campaign some fun and because it uses the bold, brash Daily Sun style the campaign takes an old recycled gag and makes it a little more original,” said Silber.

It takes a brave global brand to present society with a satirical mirror in which it can find a little comic relief in a newspaper that largely carries stories of battles, bribes and loads of bad news including stories of racial strife. Too bad Surf didn’t have the strength of its convictions and pulled the campaign at the first frothy of controversy. DM

Read more:

  • Unilever Reports Highest Quarterly Price Growth Since 2009 in Bloomberg;
  • NPR not the only news org in need of modern, realistic ethics guidelines for its journalists at Poynter;
  • Shouldn’t giving sources their due credit be the same online as in print? at Editor’s WebLog;
  • The Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute’s collection of 400 codes of ethics from newspapers across the globe.

Erratum: In this story we originally stated that the story was “readily deleted by The Media Online”. This is incorrect. The story was deleted by Media Update and not The Media Online. We have corrected this factual inaccuracy and apologise for the error.


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