To reel out mobile service provider advertisements that touch hearts as well as the elusive funny bone in richly multicultural South Africa, over seven years, is close to a miracle. Here it took the epic adventures of a gogo, a bagel and a kugel to get it right.
In South Africa, with 11 official languages, building local mobile brands loaded with real national flavor and street cred takes some doing. But take an anti-hero bagel (local slang for a perfumed and preening male who usually appears with lots of gold chains, tight-fitting leather trousers, a BMW - and a mobile). Add a wise but humble bearded fatherly hero (whose most lethal weapon is always the latest mobile, in his love-hate bagel battles with the bagel) and a catchy saying "Yebo! Gogo" (meaning Yes! Grandma) like Vodacom and advertising agency Lindsay Smithers FCB did...and you may have the makings of a winning commercial and cultural experience.
The cellular service provider, who has over 6 million customers in Africa, has won numerous awards for its Yebo! Gogo campaigns.
All the official stuff - like consumer polls, brand valuations and advertising/marketing accolades - makes it clear that on paper the brand is a whopping success story. The depth of the brand's popularity though is most telling in those informal moments. The saying has slipped into popular culture in a lot of ways. For one thing, "yebo" became the standard way of saying "yes" for months, thanks in large part to the commercial.
Nowadays, one tourism web site advises visitors that the salutation Yebo Gogo! is the way to toast South African style. Apparently, an entrepreneurial tourism operator tired of figuring out a way to honestly answer the question of 'how do you say to-your-good-health in the most South African way possible?" felt yebo gogo was a smart multilingual answer to a tricky question. Now, tourists going back home may be saluting each other with a hearty "yes! Grandma" in their local pub.
Yebo! Yes, a positively mobile world
The newest and third cellular service provider in South Africa Cell C - entering a hotly competitive market in December last year - used the magic affirmative, "yebo", in its radio advertisements. Advertising pundit and writer John Farquhar opined on Marketing Web that this appeared an "obvious dig at Vodacom". Farquhar points out too that "when Vodacom hit the jackpot with Yebo Gogo it was the envy of the industry. The concept struck a positive chord with the public, and the relationship contributed to its sales successes."
The Yebo Gogo sub-culture, truly, does stretch into remote places. An artist friend of mine who only invested in a TV recently (to enable DVD-playing) is hardly what one would describe as being tuned into each and every ad on television. However, he loves the Yebo Gogo ads. In fact, he even has a favorite and remembers the images with instant recall. "Yebo Gogo! I loved that one where he goes into a small town pub in a gold lame suit and starts singing to the locals - it emerges that he is not really singing. The furious locals run him out of town when they realize he is only pretending and is lip-synching. His tape stops in mid-song and they realize he's taken them as country hicks. What a classic!"
Others giggle about "the one where the bagel water skis and loses his trunks" or the "he's running down a beach like a hero from Chariots of Fire in his leopard skin costume to answer his mobile - and meanwhile it's someone else's ringing" image.
A bagel and a kugel
Most folk recall the first Yebo Gogo advertisement from 1994, when cellular telephony arrived in South Africa. That was a widely emotive and historical year, with the country becoming a democracy for the first time. In the ad, the bagel is driving along a rural road in his BMW convertible with his partner, the kugel.
A kugel is the female version of a bagel, usually wearing loads of jewelry and glitzy designer clothing. She always replies to the name 'Doll': something her partner and friends call her by. The twosome, meanwhile, drive past a roadside vendor (he is the grandfatherly but streetwise hero), who is selling windmills crafted from wire. They haggle like they're trying to close the tightest deal of the century. The vendor is singularly unimpressed and refuses to budge.
Hilariously the bagel greets the vendor with a patronizing (and incorrect) "I-can-greet-you-in-your-language": "Yebo! Gogo". The vendor gets the last laugh when the two subsequently have car problems. Of course, in the middle of nowhere, they have to be humble; beg, borrow - and buy many windmills - to convince the vendor to let them use his mobile phone to call for help. They drive off into the sunset with a carload full of windmills.
Even kids love a cool bagel
Local actor and singer Michael de Pinna has played the Yebo Gogo bagel, also known as "the yuppie" since 1994. University professor Bankole Omotoso acts the wise hero role. They are both household faces in South Africa. De Pinna is accustomed to being sought after by autograph hunters in the streets. Children, in particular, rush for the "Yebo Gogo man's" autograph.
De Pinna, in-person off-camera, generates warm energy. And, children, wise and innocent as they are, maybe sense this. He is a cool kid hero although he plays a baddie bagel, whose persona adults might think of as comically superficial and a bit uncool. Kids, who like to buck popular expectations, of course, think this is all very cool.
Once I saw de Pinna's magnetism in action as he hosted a charity horseracing day. Most people at the races are transfixed on the television screens with the horseracing on (competition for attention is stiff for any human celebrity, what with the equines). However, at this lunch people really listened and smiled as de Pinna introduced each race and explained the charity causes.
De Pinna is notably adept at playing many roles at any one time. While some artists tend to become almost sole-owned by a brand their persona is associated with, de Pinna, actor and individual that he is, has escaped being type cast in agile fashion. Very aptly, he is a supreme example of how to be a multi-role, and multi-directional professional.
Many of us have become increasingly "anytime, anywhere" jugglers of life roles - when fishing you may have to drop the laid-back fishing voice and put on your business voice (like an actor!) for an important call - due to mobile communications. So it's fitting that de Pinna is somewhat of a multi-role-model for the mobile lifestyle.
On this, de Pinna quips he is just a "Great Pretender." He is a professional singer, actor and also one of our country's steadfast supporters of charity. Years ago, before new age mysticism was mainstream, he also studied at a psychic institute - that is as well as studying singing at the Dance and Mime Center in London. His mother Nadia Doré was a well-known singer in England. De Pinna's father, David, was a violinist in an orchestra who also established South Africa's first five-star hotel, the Edward Hotel in Durban.
Loathed as a soapy murderer, then loved as Yebo Gogo guy overnight
Coming from a musical family, it's not surprising music remains de Pinna's first love. He believes "music is the key to your soul". His voice (often described as heart melting) touches audiences in his cabaret show: 'An evening with Michael de Pinna'. He also released a CD of his music a few years back: "Yebo Gogo - the other side of Michael de Pinna". At the time, he commented: "It is a culmination of crying my eyes out for 25 years all over the world". In over 35 years on the stage, de Pinna has played roles ranging from The Jackal in Birds of Paradise "he who laughs last" to the pirate king in Pirates of Penzance.
Notably, de Pinna's debut in the Yebo! Gogo commercial was yet another demonstration of his versatility. Coincidentally when the first advertisement launched on national television, he just happened to also be appearing in the role of a murderer ("who spent three months killing everyone") in a popular daily soap opera on TV. A murderer passionately loathed by the soapy Egoli's legion of fans. Despite the overlapping of the two different roles, South Africans went overboard in their liking of Yebo! Gogo. It was incredible, de Pinna says, experiencing how huge it went. He describes the commercial as being a bit magical in that it managed to "unite the whole country" in a new way.
De Pinna often grabs public attention - and he is never ignored. Like any mobile communicator who believes in freedom of expression, he believes in having his say and being heard. Last year, a nationwide debate broke out, with many people in the public defending de Pinna, over a gossip columnist's meow that he "looked hideous" in a gold lame outfit at a Sports Trust Fundraiser.
Mobile man drums up public debate
A heated public discussion was unleashed in the newspapers and on radio stations. Since then, the Sunday Times has even recalled de Pinna's words from the debate in an advert for the gossip columnists' weekly column on its web page. De Pinna says his feelings were (as one would expect) hurt by being described as looking "hideous."
He said in a letter to an editor of the Sunday Times: "The word 'hideous', according to the dictionary, means ghastly, frightful or extremely ugly, which I am not. Nor am I an ugly person, and, having held the reins for Vodacom for seven years, I have managed with help from them to 'endear' a nation, which is no mean feat." He also made the point that "the ad cost a few million to make and (the outfit) was fitting for the song that I had to perform, namely, The Great Pretender, and is meant to amuse, as all my commercials try to do."
Talking-info machines, with a fantasy spray gun option, please!
On the future of mobile technologies, de Pinna says: "Well, for one thing, phones are definitely getting smaller and smaller. Sometimes I have to really hunt for mine". On a serious note, he wishes the trend to grow for calls to get cheaper. "People need calls to be as cheap as possible."
He feels mobiles are incredible tools. "Really, as I see it, mobile devices are our talking-information machines. We can't do without them!" He sees them becoming even more useful. "Not too far off, it seems one's mobile will do it all for you," he muses.
One would imagine that de Pinna would like his mobile, and those of his fans, to have the capabilities to do things that are fun and highly expressive. He laughs: "Yes, it would be handy for performers, in particular, if our mobiles could act as spray guns for nasty crits. It would be wonderful, I think, if these guns could erase all the unkind things said that those of us in public life have to deal with from time to time - and, naturally, leave all the nice things said in place."
"But then one would only have the option to believe all the good and nice. Just as well that fantasy is not feasible in our reality as not even I have an ego that is so huge that it warrants that mobiles be custom designed in this fashion for those of us whose roles are in public life."
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Carol Posthumus is a freelance author, analyzing how mobile technology impacts our lives. She lives in Jeffreys Bay, South Africa.