SLR Diary: Total unsporting stuff-up on Etzebeth

In this sharp, satirical analysis of publicity-seeking campaigns that have made or broken prominent commercial brands and outlets, Simon Lincoln Reader speculates on the possible reasons for what can so easily turn into reputational suicide. FOMT, or Fear of Missing a Trend, a close cousin of FOMO or Fear of Missing Out, is a known driver among brand managers. Another is just plain old jumping on what looks like a ‘sure-thing’ politically-correct bandwagon – before realising it’s an illusory fantasy created by some populist-inclined journalist or social justice Chapter 9 outfit. After exposing the vacuous insanity of popular slogans causing similar debacles globally, Reader, hones in on Totalsports’ ill-timed removal of Springbok lock Eben Etzebeth’s image in its branches – and its clumsy justification. Whatever you believe Etzebeth’s alleged role was in a highly publicised assault in Langebaan several months ago, publicly behaving as if he’s guilty is not clever. Especially when he’s a member of a team carrying an entire nation’s hopes and dreams. Last I looked, social media was aflame with Bok supporters condemning Totalsports and calling for a consumer boycott, one petition attracting over 6,000 cyber signatures, virtually overnight. The court of public opinion is fickle – and unforgiving. – Chris Bateman

The insanity of Totalsports

By Simon Lincoln Reader*

In 2018, Nike’s campaign featuring a former NFL quarterback – “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything” – received more support than it did condemnation, and its stock rallied. The quarterback who had previously confessed to admiring Fidel Castro, was famous only for kneeling during the national anthem at football games, his objection to police brutality against unarmed black men which he would later claim as the reason he would fail to draft in the program.

But in late September last year Nike’s share price hit $85.55. All at once an idea was seized.

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First out the blocks was Gillette, owned by Procter & Gamble (P&G). Its now notorious “The best men can be” campaign was approved by P&G’s manager for its razor brands, Pankaj Bhalla, whose grasp of the so-called American “patriarchy” having never lived there could only be described as elementary. It was produced by a company in the California whose English owner boasted a history of making unpleasant remarks about Donald Trump and it was directed by an Australian woman living in London who had a reputation for being “very woke”. Together these forces unleashed an intersectional demon onto P&G’s balance sheet, resulting in an $8bn write-down of the iconic, and once trustworthy, shaving brand.

The case of Eminem – the same Eminem who was the world’s most prominent rapper around the time Tiger Woods was its most prominent golfer – is similarly revealing. In 2000 his album “Marshall Mathers LP” sold 1.76m copies. In 2017, amidst his obsession with Donald Trump, his album “Revival” – which received the roughly the same critical praise as his others – sold only 250,000 odd copies.

There is slump of Teen Vogue, of CNN, the UK’s Channel 4 – itself an examination in the folly of over-compensation – and the example of the coffee shop in Melbourne whose owners attempted to charge male customers an extra 18% in the name of the gender pay gap, but then closed it down.

Invariably the greatest test to Nike’s conviction came from China, where it has become apparent in recent months that “believing in something” is entirely conditional. Many interned Uyghur Muslims would probably sacrifice much for freedom, possibly everything, as would many rioters in Hong Kong. What was for many inspiring is in reality a vacuous commercial fast one.

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The idea of blending the pursuit of contemporary social justice into retail happens in two ways. Either the people with the ideas wish to enforce their broader views, or the ideas feature as expressions of fear of being left behind. The former seeks appeal to people who are not so much progressive as they contemptuous of anyone suspicious of progress – the latter doesn’t really know, but hopes it won’t fall foul of society’s shifting grievances.

Both expeditions arrive at the same destination, as one of the foundations of contemporary social justice theory – that which gets it into the most trouble – is that you are expected to take sides – to consciously opt for division. Furthermore, there is no guide for what happens if the side you are encouraged to take is wrong. It just stops there.

And it is here at this point of being stranded that we encounter the case of Totalsports, purchased by The Foschini Group in 2000, liked for its convenience and range and until now considered harmless, a least likely participant in identity politics.

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Totalsports had until recently featured a cardboard cutout of Eben Etzebeth, the Springbok lock and sometime captain, as part of its marketing promotions in some of its stores during the World Cup. On the basis of hearsay alone, they removed it, and worse, attempted to justify why they did so.

The matter of Etzebeth’s alleged assault in Langebaan has been appallingly handled with two of the most influential responses openly submitting to the contentious foundation: the legal head of the South African Human Rights Commission, Buang Jones, whose behaviour has exposed the possibility there may no longer be any adults left in a Chapter 9 institution to supervise excitement at the prospect of bloodletting and; the editor of News24, Adriaan Basson, who dedicated an entire column to why He thinks Etzebeth should return from Japan to face charges that may or may not exist.

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There is no evidence to suggest Totalsports is attempting to go woke, but the removal of the cutout and the accompanying statement have determined its point of arrival. By falling victim to a confected outrage, it has very much taken sides – the side that rejects the presumption of innocence as arguably the greatest advance in civilisation. It has done so in a week where Springbok rugby has once again moved into the shape of social cohesion, where shopping malls have erupted into song and dance, where the deeply moving spectacle of a child who grew up in an impoverished township unfolds to the world.

By aligning itself to one of the great deliriums of our times, Totalsports has rejected the real justice of Siya Kolisi’s life, opting instead for division. Like the others who have gone before, it now finds itself isolated, facing boycott calls and quite possibly losses, supported by a few lone voices in social media echo chambers, which isn’t actually the real world.

  • Simon Lincoln Reader lives and works in London.