Culture Vultures


We know that since the dawn of advertising, brands have been both representing and shaping the spirit, beliefs, and ideas of generations. Like it or not, the commercials we watch on television, the images we see on billboards, are all woven into the fabric of our societies and unavoidably linked to our cultural narratives about who we are, what we are told we should look like, or how people behave. In short, they reflect who we are and what we are interested in - be it trends, movements, values, the fashion of the day or songs of an era. One big global brand just got this catastrophically wrong <cough> (ADWeek's review of the pepsi ad).

We also know that consumers now, particularly younger ones, are expecting brands to be more human. They should be more empathetic and less corporate. They should be less formal and more approachable. They should talk and act more like everyday people, not mega-capitalists. And now, more than ever, they should have a conscience, be it socially or environmentally.

But at the end of the day, we all know that brands are out to sell things, so how do we walk the line between appropriating (in other words, exploiting) the culture and values of our times versus appreciating and celebrating them? How do we avoid the ‘Pepsi pitfalls’ and the irrevocable damage that it can cause to not only our brands but the perception of advertising?


We spoke to a few of the most clued-up South African youth and youth culture analysts to find out what the secret is to staying in touch and on-trend without alienating or embarrassing yourself.

In one word, it’s all about authenticity. Brands, they told us, should never, ever try to be something that they’re not. If consumers perceive and describe your brand as mature and wise, your communications shouldn’t depict it as youthful and frivolous. If your brand isn’t entrenched on a holistic level within the youth market, don’t force it. If you, brand managers or creatives, don’t understand the subtle nuances of a culture or trend you’re trying to portray, avoid it altogether. It seems obvious, but it’s a blunder too frequently seen in our multi-cultural South Africa.

The key to achieving authentic communications is in alignment. How well does your message or what you’re trying to represent align with your brand’s values? How well does your message represent and align with real South African people, trends, values and voices (especially people of colour)? And, perhaps most importantly, whose voices are you representing, that of your brand or that of your consumer?

Common refrains heard in the criticism of Pepsi’s famous mistake were, ‘How did this even get approved? How many people did this have to pass through in order to be produced? Did nobody see how problematic this is?’ Perhaps if they collaborated more with their market, listened to and understood the complexities of our time (and particularly the sensitivities of the Black Lives Movement they were depicting), this could have been a compelling message. Consumers, people, hold the power to authenticating your brand from the conception stage through to production. Engage with them, hear their voices, and appreciate the power they can offer your brand.


Kate Snyder, head of Anthropology at Instant Grass International.

Although originally from the US, I’m an adopted South African having spent the last 11 years here living and learning about SA youth culture, initially as it relates to health in my first role as socio-behavioural researcher in public health, and now as it relates to popular culture as a senior strategist at Instant Grass International. As an anthropologist, I’m especially interested in how individuals and cultures shape one another - how cultural pretexts often dictate individual beliefs and behaviours, but equally, how we all individually play a role in shaping and changing cultural constructs.


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