Imagine if Africans had explored and colonised European countries in the 1600s… Fast-food chain Chicken Licken SA gave national television audiences a peek of how that tale might have been told in its tongue-in-cheek Legend of Big John commercial, in which it tells consumers to “conquer” their hunger with its Big John burger.

However, Chicken Licken has been ordered to withdraw the controversial commercial with immediate effect following a ruling by the Advertising Regulatory Board (ARB) on Friday.

The ARB found that the commercial trivialises an issue that is triggering and upsetting for many South Africans and contravenes the provisions of Section 1 of Section II of the Code, making it unsuitable for local television.

The complainant, Sandile Cele, argued that the commercial “[makes a] mockery of the struggles of the African people against the colonisation by the Europeans in general, and the persecutions suffered at the hands of the Dutch in particular.”

The commercial, which has been on SA television since late November, shows a young black man, called John Mjohnana, leaving his village in a boat in 1650 in the hopes of satisfying his hunger for adventure. He overcomes many obstacles along the way, including a growling jaguar on a tropical island and lightning storms, a whale, a shark and a giant squid at sea.

He arrives in Holland in 1651 and finds two white men looking at a map, seemingly preparing for a voyage. He greets them in what is known as “Tsotsi taal” in South Africa, saying, “Hola MaNgamla” (“hello white people”), and tells them that he likes the place and it should be called Europe.

“His spirit was unstoppable, and his hunger was too big. Ja, Big Mjohnana did many things, but he will always be remembered for discovering a foreign land,” the advert’s narrator says.

The commercial ends with an elderly man in a Chicken Licken outlet telling a few customers that that is the legend of Big John , and he leaves the fast-food outlet laughing. The next customer in the queue orders a Big John burger.

In the statement of its decision, the ARB recognises that turning the usual colonisation story around might be perceived as having a certain element of humour and that the commercial was crafted with the intention of being funny.

However, “While the commercial seeks to turn the colonisation story on its head with Big John travelling to Europe, it is well-known that many Africans were in fact forced to travel to Europe in the course of the colonisation of Africa. They did not leave their countries and villages wilfully. They starved to death during those trips to Europe and arrived there under harsh and inhumane conditions.”

In its ruling, the ARB argued that colonialism in Africa is “a sensitive and divisive topic” and is “not open for humorous exploitation”, no matter how amusing it might be for some people. This experience can never be rewritten differently and cannot be trivialised in any manner.

“The fact that the commercial is far-fetched and over-the-top does not nullify the potential offence,” it added. It also noted that advertising is a powerful tool that influences public perceptions. 

Chicken Licken has disagreed with the ruling, however, and submitted that it is regrettable that the commercial has been interpreted in a negative way.

“As a South African brand, Chicken Licken is acutely aware of the need to uplift the South African spirit. And that is the place from which the commercial stems, to show South Africans that Chicken Licken believes this country has all the potential to conquer the world and rewrite history from an African perspective,” the company said. 

“[Chicken Licken’s] tongue-in-cheek sense of humour is a tone that consumers have come to expect, but its communication’s underlying purpose is to create a sense of pride and patriotism amongst South Africans.”

Picture: Screenshot/YouTube/Chicken Licken

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