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Nigeria’s tyranny of low expectations

In one of my previous iterations as a marketing professional back in 2014, I was tasked with coming up with a campaign idea for a telecom service provider which was partnering with a popular mobile phone brand to launch its latest model in the Nigerian market. The purpose of the task was to ascertain whether I could actually think on the required level to qualify as a creative working for Nigeria’s busiest PR agency. The verdict when it came back, was emphatic – my idea was fresh, it was different and it was bold.

There was one problem though – it would never get greenlit. As the supervisor explained to me, this was par for the course in Nigeria’s marketing space. Clients would request bold and fresh ideas, which would subsequently get pitched impressively to applause. Then when it was time to approve campaigns and sign off on payment orders, the tune would change. The exciting, colourful, challenging campaign ideas would morph into the same old pay-for-a-celebrity-endorsement-and-media-advert-space fare that everyone had done to death. The reason? Apparently, “Nigerian audiences don’t get smart stuff” – his words, not mine.

A stereotype or a fact?

While I spent my time in marketing constantly fighting against the idea that Nigerian audiences did not deserve to see proper creativity because of their alleged lack of smarts, my subsequent stint in Television gave me pause. As a writer on The Other News, which was supposed to be by some distance the smartest show on Nigerian television, I thought I would finally get to prove that Nigerian audiences could ‘get’ intelligent stuff and did not need to be patronised.

That show was explicitly positioned as Nigeria’s answer to ‘The Daily Show,’ complete with a veteran stand-up comedian skewering hard news and current affairs in the style of Jon Stewart and Trevor Noah. The writing team had some of the brightest young minds in Nigeria, and no expense was spared in putting the project together. Even the trainers were Americans flown in for the specific purpose of immersing us in the character of an intelligent political satire show. We were going to change the world! Or at least a West African fragment of it called Nigeria…

What happened instead, became one of the biggest running disappointments in my entire professional life to date – the audiences just did not get it. Don’t get me wrong, we had viewers – almost 2 million weekly primetime viewers at our peak. We satisfied all the parameters for being regarded as one of the most successful shows on television. We regularly got invited to hang out with foreign diplomats and celebrities, and we made some good money individually. I even got nominated for an IVLP off the back of my work there.

And yet, our actual bread-and-butter Nigerian working-and-middle-class audiences simply did not ‘get’ it. They watched it alright, but the feedback was always the same – less smart commentary and more “haha” please. Our most popular episode ever was an episode where we abandoned all pretence at smart satire and chased the cheap laughs. We used a green screen and chrome keyed in characters dressed as jungle animals with Dan the Humorous delivering what was effectively a stand-up routine. We all hated that episode, but the audience loved it! Eventually, pressure from management and advertisers started to come in – “Make it more like that Animal episode so that people can laugh!”

What is the reason?

Even in my current iteration as an investigative journalist, social media rabble rouser and exiled dissident, this problem still persists. I cannot count the number of times I have written something, even in this publication, and seen it edited down for “simplicity” by an editor who simply fears that it will lose the audience. I am unable to accept the idea that the same Nigerian audiences that watch Trevor Noah deliver his multilayered, intelligent commentary on The Daily Show, cannot understand Okey Bakassi doing the same thing on The Other News. And yet, this is what everyone in the creative sector in this part of the world deals with on a daily basis.

My (unbacked and unscientific) hypothesis is that this comes down to something a friend once described to me as the ‘Tyranny of Low Expectations.’ Essentially, this means that when certain demographics are expected to display less aptitude or be less competent at certain things, overtime the people in question begin to accept their characterisation and embody it. Effectively, it is a roundabout way of saying “self fulfilling prophecy.” This would seem to me, to be the only reason why the same audiences that enjoy the investigative work of Glenn Greenwald or Ian Dunt would see the same type of work written by a Nigerian and have a problem with it – we are all supposed to be uniformly mediocre, apparently.

It is why we tried every kind of studio audience we could find at The Other News – students, fellow broadcasters, people off the street, celebrities – and they would all sit in a suspended silence for 30 minutes as we filmed, occasionally responding to a cue card saying “laugh” or “chuckle.” Put these same people in the studio where Trevor Noah is filming, and they would not need cue cards to tell them that a smart observation was just made.

But in an environment where mediocrity is expected, it also becomes enforced.

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