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Abstract

This dissertation investigates the history of racialized consumer citizenship in South Africa from the perspective of those who create advertising. In the history of South Africa, constituting racial hierarchies involved Blacks being denied the status both of citizen and consumer. As well justifying the political exclusion of Blacks through racist notions of their supposed inferiority to Whites, dominant racial ideology during colonialism and then apartheid framed Blacks as cheap labor for Whites, rather than as modern consumers of commodities; during this time, many Whites in the advertising industry and corporate world considered Blacks to be unworthy of having advertising directed at them. On the other hand, in post-apartheid South Africa Black consumers have become a prime target of advertising, described by many corporations, advertising agencies, and marketing research companies as an untapped source of profit. As the majority-White advertising industry turns its marketing efforts towards Black South Africans, it must engage with historically shaped imaginaries of citizens and nation, race and class. Drawing on 15 months of fieldwork in South Africa which included archival research of advertising industry periodicals; ethnographic research conducted at advertising agencies; in-depth interviews with advertising professionals situated at various institutional sites throughout the industry, and analysis of ad campaigns, I provide an historically situated examination of the advertising industry’s attempts to address and constitute Blacks as consumers, asking how these attempts explicate changing notions of race, class, consumers and political subjects. This dissertation contributes to scholarship investigating the changing relationship between race, class, and consumption in the context of South Africa, examining the transition of South Africa from a ‘society of control’ to a ‘society of consumption’ (Mbembe 2014) through the lens of creating advertising, thus elucidating the tensions of creating equal consumer citizens within a context of stark inequality and a history of racial capitalism. I shows how both advertising and political actors grapple with the relationship between difference and inclusion, presents and futures, the contingencies of desire on the one hand, and attempts to stabilize projects of value on the other. I argues that advertising offers to resolve these tensions through the transformative promise of ‘aspirational recognition’, which refers to how advertising attempts to show consumer both ‘who they are’ and ‘who they want to be’, thus offering to actualize their ideal selves. On the other hand, I argue that the ethnographic vantage point of racialized consumer citizenship in South Africa demonstrates how the structure of advertising’s mode of address in an era of branding serves to calibrate social hierarchies in relation to hierarchies of consumers. In this way, it contributes to scholarship on the political implications of the global spread of the techniques of advertising into the non-commercial realm. Specifically, I show how interpellating consumers through advertising involves a series of tensions – between the universal consumer and consumers marked by particularity; between commodity desire in the present and brand love in the future, and between a stable brand identity and the fluidity of a social landscape in flux. I argue that the context of South Africa elucidates how advertising may become caught up in shaping the dynamics of social and political inclusion and exclusion, as these tensions, inherent to its mode of address, are projected onto a series of consumer ‘others’, thus constituting an unmarked consumer citizen ‘self’. I trace how both these tensions and the ‘others’ onto which they are projected have transformed historically, and the shifting place of race and class in this process.

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