Democrazy: Critically, conspiracy theory is not always fake news.

It can be debated that the strange and bizarre, the revolutionary and outrageous, the factual and the fake, the resurfacing questions about the ancient and modern, have all caught and held our interest however briefly in the past few years, as we were exposed to all things referred to as “the Unknown”. I thought about all things “Unknown” because of Nando’s “Unknown Mysteries of South Africa” TV commercial, where “the unknown”, mystery and uncertainty as themes to rouse suspicion as a means to profit, are explored. The ideas are executed with flair and an intelligence that can only be provided by the experience of an artist sticking to the tried and trusted while sticking it to the establishment. The ad, a Tv commercial ask a simple question, “The Patty, where does it come from, which part is it… all of the parts… 100% of the parts… what are they hiding…?”. Imagery and diagrams of what appears to be genetically modified creatures, an ancient patty archaeological find and a redacted whistle-blower offer a tantalising taste to the bounds of the imagination. But the narrative is not to be completely dismissed, crazy as it seems, because we keep record of our reality.

Nando’s chief marketing officer Doug Places, interviewed on the company website says, “We’ve noticed that many South Africans right now are rightfully questioning what exactly their food is and where it comes from.” I read this and guessed this is both because of conscious consumer practice as a trend, but also an omen of the information age, people just want to know, something, anything. More true in the age of transparency.

“… If you can’t identify what exactly the burger patty is made of, maybe the alarm bells should be ringing.” Places, continued.

They (Nando’s) have done it before questioning the origins of another processed meat, the chicken nugget… and of course its all tongue in cheek until it isnt? Is it still based on conspiracy theory, when in 2013 business insider wrote “Our study confirms that the mislabelling of processed meats is commonplace in South Africa and not only violates food labelling regulations, but also poses economic, religious, ethical and health impacts,” said animal sciences professor Louw Hoffman.” referring to unidentified ingredients, like donkey, buffalo DNA ect, found in processed meats. South Africans were outraged, conversations arose and fell, the people quickly forgot.

Being catapulted into worldwide uncertainty by Covid-19 Pandemic and subsequent lockdown was the culmination of a series of odd occurrences, public narratives sans meaning, unusual claims, new age/old age spiritualisms, a comeback of Astrology, provocative theories surrounding conspiracy, wokeness, Religious speculations about antichrists, 666 vaccines, climate changes, 5G radiations, credulity inspring fact checkers and debunkers, rumours of war and last days incurable diseases and apocalypses… In this generation at least, we’ve witnessed it before with Aids and even Y2k, leading up to mayans famous 2012 and even after. But some may argue these questions raised are genuine concerns, from different perspectives, some questions existing for as long as humanity has existed. Although the concerns are genuine, they probably stem from some sort of comprehension/ processing short circuit induced by hardened positions, exposure to mis/disinformations, that propagandising cell phone, social media applications, and perhaps even attempts at subversion all exaggerating reality for a purpose. There is a message, the message has to be passed on. Sometimes the message is a narrative that is so far removed from the possible initial message (reality), it presents us with the dangerous paradox of conspiracy theory; the reason to believe in conspiracy theory is the same reason not to believe in it… the reason: people have an inability to keep secrets.

Fake News has also been an interesting phenomena in these times, a blessing or a curse depending on who you are in the classic communications model/process. Without adequate information, it becomes hard to make decisions, and even dangerous… this is particularly true for consumers, end users, but also for brands, often, the creators of the message needing an audience for whatever reason. The noise created can and will influence the message, and ultimately the feedback, which needs to be considered to make future decisions. Perhaps I am biased, I tend to think of communications as essential to the construction of reality, by communication i’m alluding to truth but not necessarily, and this is why advertising has worked to degrees that are against the people’s interests. A large part of my observations as communicator is, people don’t care much about “the truth”, but they definitely care about narrative – which is a story or tale or any account of a series of related events or experiences, whether nonfictional or fictional. Narratives can be presented through a sequence of written or spoken words, still or moving images, or any combination of these, and so mass communications and its practitioners as enablers/creators of narratives STILL have the most important role in the structuring of reality…

This is where it gets tricky for sociology and communications enthusiasts, such as myself, concerned with truth, its relation to society and those things which build social cohesion rooted in trust and mutual benefit. The unknown or unverified as narrative is tricky and beguiling, but also intriguing. The best practice is focus on the ideas presented rather than seeking proof or evidence… focus on the questions raised rather than the answers. but never censorship as a a solution, no matter how pleasing it is. It would be good to consider the questions, and the unsatisfactory answers, perhaps even the unconvincing that is paraded as proof, and then make up your own mind. When looked at together, over time, a picture might form to outline the predicament of human existence. We are subject to influence and it is okay, what is important is for us to mind our response to uncertainty. I say this as a recovering creative conspiracy theorist.

back to Nando’s, the head of marketing said, the advertisement was “…simply a public service announcement to raise the questions that need to be raised. In a year when we are all being more careful about what we are putting into our bodies, we wanted to remind South Africans that we have a 100% no-mystery chicken burger and any single side for the affordable price of R49,” Genius i thought, on brand and in-tune with the times, join the conversation on uncertainty, offer a solution with reduced uncertainty. The ads ending shows a Nando’s waitress carrying two 100% chicken fillet burgers in a Nando’s restaurant saying, “Ai, we don’t know about those patties, but we know our chicken.”

This last line in essence captures the spirit of the age of uncertainty, if we are bombarded with the new, especially if it is disagreeable, demanding you pick a side quickly, acceptance or rejection… be tolerant in passing judgement. Stick to what you know, explore – sure, but remember you are under no obligation to pick a side. I think that qualifies as philosophy. It is within the Nando’s brand to be revolutionary even outrageous, I mean sticking to chicken when it was easy and even tempting to give a beef patty offering as markets would dictate is at the very least brave… and now as an uncompromising chicken brand, they could bank on that fact, and capitalise on the uncertainty both celebrities and the working class in our democracy by asking a necessary question, “The patty, where does it come from?”… and they offer no answers, they only offer a solution, for R49.

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