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Could the emperor be naked as hell?

Could the emperor be naked as hell?

Tiffany Markman has realised that we, the creative citizens of Africa, suffer from imposter syndrome.

During a recent trip to the US, which I thought was the land of milky, honeyed, significantly above-par creative excellence, I realised something unexpected. We, the communicators and marketers of Africa, have been lulled into decades and decades of admiration for a loud showy fella with a strong American twang and a large and enthusiastic imperial entourage — but not a lot of clothing on.

Nope, I’m not referring to the Sentient Naartjie[1] who previously held presidential office; I’m thinking of something more established, something more institutional.

Better, because they say they are

I’m thinking of a nation known for being better at communicating — not because it is but because it says it is. And I guess all this began with television…

We got a colour TV set when I was about five years old. It was a BIG DEAL. My dad brought it home — this beige-coloured alien box with its line of prominent beige-coloured nipple-buttons — and we all stood around it, awestruck.

In 1986, because we were English-speaking, we had no need to use Radio 2000 to simulcast Miami Vice (known as Misdaad in Miami), The Six Million Dollar Man(Steve Austin: Die Man van Staal) and Beverly Hills, 90210 but we were all very clear on one thing: AMERICAN EVERYTHING WAS VERY MUCH BETTER.

Fraudy feelings vs full-blown ego

Twenty years later, I began to realise how dire US television advertising is, in the main. If you’ve spent any time there, you’ve seen it. Pharma trials, political mud-slinging, and that flippin’ gecko. John L Rothra agrees with me (or he did in 2016):

“Most TV ad producers should be fired and the companies who hired them should sue to get their money back. I’ll just say it: many (and I’d argue most) television ads are not captivating or compelling. Instead, they are, to be blunt, just plain moronic, senseless, and dull… While I can’t critique every commercial ever made, nor have I seen even a majority of them, I can say this: advertising execs have let us and their client down.”

Today, my suspicion is that dire US advertising is a symptom of something much larger: chronic creative over-confidence that the rest of us have bought into.

I teach, speak and write a lot about impostor syndrome, which is the feeling of fraudulence, self-doubt and inadequacy that plagues high achievers, creatives and individuals from historically disadvantaged sectors of society. I’ve realised, too, that we, the creative citizens of Africa, suffer from a shared sense of being lesser. Of being smaller. Of being less worthy of global stages — both real and metaphorical.

In contrast, the US seems to me to suffer from the corollary of impostor syndrome, which many refer to as the Dunning-Kruger Effect. This is when we overestimate our own skills, knowledge, and achievement, ignoring warnings because we “already know” or brushing off criticism because we feel we know better.

Here’s the thing: Just as simple self-criticism can snowball into full-blown, debilitating impostor syndrome, inflated self-belief can develop into ignorance and arrogance. (Again, I feel that it is only fair to reference the Sentient Naartjie[1] in this context.)

Excellence on top, mediocrity beneath

In the fields in which I work (digital marketing, corporate communication, brand voice and message-craft), I can’t deny that there are pockets of excellence in and around the US. They get a lot of play as they make a lot of noise. Beneath those pockets, however, is mediocrity at scale and, because the audience is clapping so hard as a mob, no-one in the crowd talks about how so much of what they see, hear and feel is disappointing — or just plain “meh”.

I spent a week in the company of 824 other communicators, of which 40 (including me) were conference speakers. Of the 40, 15 of us hailed from Africa: North, East, South and West, so I’m confident putting in writing the three things that I think we do better in Africa, right now, when it comes to communication:

  1. Content selection for newness, freshness and original perspectives
  2. Relevance and sensitivity, featuring diverse real‑world examples
  3. Honesty and authenticity — even, dare I say it, vulnerability

We work that much harder

Why are we so good? I think it’s because, as representatives of “shithole countries”, we start on the back foot and we work that much harder to add value.

Remember the iconic Avis campaign, “We try harder“? In 1962, ad agency Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB) was able to turn being the no. 2 car rental brand in the market into a true marketing advantage. For 50 epic years!

I doubt we’d see that kind of self-awareness permitted of US agencies by major second-only-to-the-frontrunner US clients today. Yet we do it a lot in Africa, and we always have, because of that back foot.

And what of the emperor and his naked backside? The fairytale has become a shorthand for spin over substance, for illusion over truth.

The emperor walks among his subjects in his non-existent finery. None of them see anything but no one says a word. Some are too embarrassed to tell the truth. Others think they must be too stupid to see the magical clothes, which are visible only to the wise. But a small child, innocent of pretence, shouts, “He hasn’t got anything on!”

That’s how I feel about AMERICAN EVERYTHING BEING MUCH BETTER. Perhaps it was. But, in communications best practice, it isn’t any more. Its bum is bare.

This article by Tiffany Markman originally appeared on MarkLives on 1st September 2022. 

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