Remember all the way back, if you can, to last December, when we learned that Thamsanqa Jantjie — a man with schizophrenia and a history of violent crime — had been allowed to serve as the official sign-language interpreter at the big South African memorial service for Nelson Mandela, only to sign nonsense as President Obama, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and other dignitaries stood just feet away. It turns out that someone looked at that fiasco and saw a marketing opportunity.
Jantjie is now the pitchman for Livelens, a Tel Aviv–based start-up that just raised $2 million for its live-streaming app. In an ad recently posted online, Jantjie reminds everyone who he is before explaining, “Believe me, I’m a real professional sign-language interpreter … I’m really sorry for what happened. Now I want to make it up to the whole world.” At the beginning of the video, he stands next to a double of himself signing phrases that are then translated by a female voice. Among them: “Me famous celebrity” and “Now I do campaign for money.” Later, Jantjie poses in front of a graphic of a disco ball and a wall lined with dollar bills, and his face is spliced onto a photo of a topless man riding a horse. He also vaguely explains what the Livelens app actually does.
Somewhat disturbingly, Livelens representative Sefi Shaked told NBC News that Jantjie has been in a psychiatric facility since the Mandela episode. In order to film the spot, the company “worked with an Israeli production company to get a Zulu-speaking journalist to visit the hospital in February — and tell staffers that Jantjie needed to be released for one day for a ‘family event.’” Shaked, who said he was inspired to recruit Jantjie after watching an SNL skit about him, claims that he doesn’t see anything wrong with sneaking a sick person out of treatment to hawk his product. “It’s morally right,” Shaked said. “At the end of the day, a schizophrenic guy got paid and did a nice campaign … We see it as sort of a sad story with a happy ending.” Or something.