At 2:30 AM on Sunday morning, I decided that I wanted to sell 400,000 copies of Sally and the Butterfly by the end of 2016. It’s “impossible”, but they say that if you shoot for the moon, you’ll land among the stars. It is also said that if you want something you’ve never had before you’re required to do something you’ve never done. So I sought out some advice about marketing.
“What are you doing to reach your 400K goal?” an advisor asked me.
I told him that I was promoting Sally and the Butterfly more regularly on Twitter, reaching out to some local nature/preservation organizations in the Atlanta area, and trying to figure out a strategy about how to get the book into school libraries. He nodded and furrowed his brow, signaling that he disapproved of something. Soon enough, I would find out.
“Yes. Well, that’s all well and good, but you need to tie Salimah (Sally’s actual name) to some sort of event in Africa. Now, the good thing is that the ‘sickness’ that her town is stricken with doesn’t have a name, so this is your opportunity to tether it to an event that has global attention. Like Ebola.”
“Yes. Ebola. Then you can go on and say ‘For every book sold, $1.00 – or any amount you choose – will go to support Ebola kids.’”
He actually said ‘Ebola kids’.
I was absolutely gobsmacked. I felt my stomach begin to churn. Finally, I told him that I couldn’t reduce myself to do this in order to sell a book. I want to sell Sally and The Butterfly based on the adventures of an 8-year-old girl who finds her confidence while helping others…not a disease! That’s when he hit me with:
“Well, that’s what it takes to sell African themed books.”
But then he told me not to worry. I would only have to do this for a little while…just until the book took off. I stared at him with the shock of a fish just yanked out of cold water before thanking him for his opinion and taking to Twitter to rant about this bizarre encounter.
I have yet to ask my brothers and sisters who are active in other aspects of the creative arts if they feel pressured to adopt this policy in order to market and sell their work. Like, did Poetra have to tie Mutherfuckitude to rape in the Congo in order to get traction – and well-deserved praise – for her EP going? Does Nana Kofi Acquah have to sell a narrative about how a passing white man benevolently gifted him with a camera one day 20 years ago, thus lifting him from poverty and making him the international sensation he is today? That’s not the story of how he got his start, by the way, but wouldn’t it be oh-so-much more “exciting” and “sexy” if it were?
Honestly, for a while, I thought this humiliation was a cross built specifically for the African novelist: That our book covers must feature an acacia tree and our work zero in on themes that are synonymous with Darkest/Emerging from Darnkess Africa in order to be marketable. Indeed, it is the only way for both the Western and African reader to identify with the author’s brand or the subject matter, isn’t it? Even the numbers and accolades on best seller’s lists bear this out. But then I came across this advertising series from a company called Calorad, and was overtaken by memories of other ad campaigns from companies that have adopted similar tactics to Calorad in order to move their units and thus reminded that novelists do not suffer this pressure alone.
Take a look at this comic strip Calorad uses to sell its pills to women they consider to be overweight.
— Maka Liya (@AbenaGyekye) April 20, 2016
Understandably, 99.99% of people who have seen this ad are upset. Out of all the hundreds of retweets it’s received, I’ve only seen one in which an oblivious user wanted to know how the story ended because it was “interesting”. (And of course, he HAD to be a Ghanaian.)
If you look at the thread of RTs, you’ll notice a repetition of certain sentiments.
Loss for words
The reason these people are unable to articulate their hostility for what I’m sure the marketing team at Calorad thought was a brilliant ad is this: that hostility taps into an ancient indignation.
In just 20 panels, Calorad managed to conflate 600 years of anti-Black rhetoric and race-based sexual stereotyping in order to sell its product.
Here, we see the hyper-sexualized Black African male, so inflamed by his passions, lusts – and more importantly –
guided by his penis that he cannot concentrate. The sight of a passing buttocks is enough to make him lose focus, abandon integrity and give in to his baser animal self. He can’t help it. He has a dysfunctional preoccupation with sex. He’s an African man.
We are also introduced to the eager Black female…a flagrant vixen who at one point in history was even considered “unrapeable”. Why? Because the exotic
African female too is oversexed and has an unspoken desire to be ravaged. She’s not really human. She’s an object to be used – or worshipped – for her extraordinary features. The large buttocks, the thick lips, the aesthetics that are polar opposites to typical white female attributes; Attributes that are now held as the standard for normal female appearance.
This then ties into self-depreciating body image and the “need” weight reduction at any cost. The fact is Black women are – on average- heavier than white women. We have higher bone density. Our hip to waist ratio is smaller. We age differently. In terms of appearance, a 200 lbs Black woman and a 200 lbs white woman are as similar as a pear is to a refrigerator. And yet what we see here is Calorad imposing white beauty standards on African women…because surely the heavier African female MUST be dissatisfied with her image. That the African female exists in a state of such pervasive anti-whiteness (where whiteness is normalcy, remember) is a problem that needs to be cured. This is why bleaching creams and diet pills and 18” weaves are marketed with such vigor. The only way to be a successful woman – and more importantly, keep your phallus guided African man’s interest – is to be light skinned with long hair and now by Calorad’s definition, thin.
If you thought this ad series was bad, I encourage you to check out the rest of their Facebook page. It will leave you stunned.
Is there anything wrong with wanting to lose weight? Absolutely NOT. But I can’t imagine this ad campaign taking off in London or Las Vegas with white women as the target audience. They would pitch a fit and rightly so. Ad campaigns for weight loss products in the West are focused on two things: health and results. It is only in Africa that our products are marketed to us by drawing on tropes and tragedies from our colonial past and provoking notions of our inferiority. The question I have is, what precludes us from being marketed to with dignity? Is it really that hard to sell an African a product based purely on its merits?
*NB: Since posting this article, I have been blocked from Calorad’s Facebook page where I discovered the campaign initially. A sensible company would have admitted its error and attempted to do some rehabilitation to its image. But that would be expecting too much from a company that pulled this loathsome, self-hating stunt in the first place, wouldn’t it?
Oh! And if you want to help me reach my 400K goal, you can visit my page on Amazon.com or StoreFoundry.