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Opinions of Saturday, 20 September 2014

Columnist: Amenyo, Kofi

The funny side of advertising in Ghana

When you are as old as I have become, you cannot think of things in Ghana today and not compare them with how they were a long time ago. The good old days are often said to be better. But we all know that is only because of the nostalgia the old feel for the times when they were young. If you look at it more dispassionately, you will admit there are so many things today in Ghana that are a lot better than they were in those “good” old days. The old can tell of difficult conditions of bygone years that today’s young cannot even imagine, much less endure.

But there are some things that cannot be said to be either better, or worse, in the past. They were just different. That difference happens to be the unique thing about them. Then there is also the realisation that those things can never again be like they were.

Take the history of radio advertisement in Ghana for example. Before the advent of FM stations in the 80s, there was only GBC that operated three shortwave stations. GBC 1 used six local languages and the news in English. It carried no ads. It was purely a public service station. The External Service of GBC broadcast in English and selected foreign languages (including Swahili) directed at specific regions of Africa. It was one of Nkrumah’s efforts to reach out to the rest of Africa and project Ghana’s soft power on the continent. Then there was GBC 2, the commercial wing of GBC. It was the only station on which you could hear advertisements in Ghana.

And it carried some interesting ones in English and the local languages. What will you say about that Guinness ad where a man asks a footballer about his last goal: Goal a wo tee no ekyire yi paa die, afa m’ani so se nyinam! Na wo yee no den? And the footballer takes a pause and replies: Wodie, ma menom mi Guinness yi enwie ansa … after which the Guinness jingle is heard. Or that one when a guy asks his lover: Odo, edieben na wode aye w'anim ama n'aye nahanaha tontontrom feefeefe saa? And the girl giggles before responding coquettishly: Menka nkyere wo… Well, but she does tell: Eye Nku Cream!!!

Today, there are more than 200 FM stations in Ghana. Most of them are sustained by the money they make on ads and announcements. And the ads themselves have taken on different formats. There are now more goods and services available to sell to Ghanaians than before. Every item that can be sold to someone can also be advertised on all available media.

A few of the old ads are still around like the Milo jingle: Kpa kpa – kpa-kpa-kpa-kpa, Mii-lo! Some of the ads for the old items have taken new forms. The Guinness ad now tells you Black is Beautiful to correspond with the rich dark colour of the beer. Since I was a kid in the 60s, we have been told black was beautiful. Well, that beauty of blackness is now going to make us drink more Guinness.

There is a wave of vulgar consumerism gripping the well-heeled political elite and middle class Ghanaians which even the poor, in their meagre ways, are trying desperately to imitate. There are now more goods and services in Ghana than at any time in our history. The many not so world class shopping malls and supermarkets are prop full of goods ranging from South African grapes through Danish canned beer, cheap Chinese made consumer electronics to packed frozen pizza from Germany. This means there are ever more goods and services to sell to the people through, at times, brash and tasteless ads. This is a far cry from the “Rawlings’ chain” era of the 80s. Life may still be hard for many Ghanaians, but it is not because they cannot even catch the sight of their most wanted and beloved consumer goods.

Radio, television, newspapers and billboards/hoardings remain the main means of advertising in Ghana. In Accra, the radio ads are basically in English and Akan or some bizarre mixture of different languages. Shortwave broadcasting doesn’t exist in Ghana anymore. Ads and announcements on local FM stations across the country are mostly in the local languages specific to the area with additions in English.

All the FM stations carry ads – lots and lots of them. On some stations, there is a commercial every other minute! On the highbrow stations like Joy FM, every single programme is sponsored by some company or the other. The major news, business news, weather report, sports are all “brought to you by” a string of companies. Even the text message you send in to a radio station expressing your views on the topic being discussed is sponsored by some company.

There is some sinister manner in which what are pure commercials or product promotions are embedded in “normal” announcements on radio. Such commercials do not have jingles and are read out each time by the radio announcer. It is very deceiving since the listener may think the commercial is a public service announcement. Some devote hours to a mixture of announcements and ads presented as a humour show.

Television ads are very effective in Ghana since Ghanaians watch tons of television. Unfortunately, this is where some of the ads showing the most useless consumer products are aired. Ghanaians are eating lots of junk food aggressively marketed to them as healthy foods. Indomie noodles have been oversold to Ghanaians who are being deceived when they are told noodles are tasty and nutritious. They are told that Royco cubes will make their sauces tasty even though the sauce they are being shown on the screen is just full of unhealthy fats, oil and grease!!! Any wonder that many Ghanaians, especially the women, are grossly overweight!

All the TV programmes are also sponsored by some company or organisation. The credits after the news show the companies behind the newsreaders’ dresses, hairdos, make-ups, etc.

Billboards are all over the place especially in the big cities. They advertise every imaginable thing in the world – property developers with posh urban flats whose annual rents are denominated in dollars, brand new cars, alcoholic beverages of all kinds, aluminium foils for kitchen use, toilet rolls, rice, salt, higher and lower education, financial services. Even radio programmes and international conferences are advertised on huge billboards. Some of the artwork on these billboards is horrible.

Every lamppost in the capital has some ad hanging on it. It may be Asamoah Gyan asking you to choose Royco Shrimp Flavour or Ewole Monkor. André Ayew is telling you how wonderful a certain brand of chewing gum is. Gyan also happily shops at Melcom – a shop many Ghanaians will tell you is notorious for selling very shoddy goods. All the trees lining the streets in the major cities have some ad placed on them.

There are now fly overs in Accra and Kumasi. These provide a lot of concrete space for daring graffiti artists to display their talents. But Ghanaian youth (or artists) don’t do graffiti. So these spaces are mercifully left clean or covered with posters announcing funerals. Oh, funeral announcements are now also mounted on medium sized billboards. Smaller versions of the same announcements can be carried on the backs of commercial vehicles and private cars.

There is one thing you will notice about billboards in Ghana. Some of them carry out-dated information. We do not remove old ads in Ghana. This is especially true for the billboards selling politicians. Some of them date from the 2008 elections and many of the 2012 ones can still be seen all over the country. One can still see the faces of Mahama and Akufo-Addo with their constituency candidates even though some of these candidates may have retired from politics. There seems to be some new pictures of Akufo-Addo in fine profile that disguises his aged face.

Newspapers are still very important as an advertising medium in Ghana. The newspapers can now afford lots of pages many of which are devoted to full page ads. Daily Graphic, our premier print medium, struggles with a hundred others for advertising revenue. Sometimes, up to 70% of the space is devoted to ads. It can be very frustrating to buy a newspaper and wade through several pages of ads to read a story in tiny print. Many of these ads are huge funeral announcements with the blurred picture of the deceased in the centre.

The internet and social media have also caught up in the race for advertisement revenue in Ghana but they clearly lag behind the traditional ones. The most popular social media outlets in Ghana are Facebook, Twitter and Whatsapp and most companies make sure they have a presence there. For some unknown reason, Whatsapp is extremely popular in Ghana.

Top up your cell phone account and you will see some promotional ad from the operator. Ring someone and what you hear is some song you can download. I was never able to figure out how to opt out of these.

Ghanaians are very ingenious in the manner in which they sell their wares. There are vehicles mounted with PA systems selling all manner of goods, especially local medicines that can cure all ailments. Sellers of music CDs in cars mounted with huge loudspeakers park at strategic spots in the city and play their music at full volume disturbing everybody. But nobody arrests them. Religious music is very popular with Ghanaians!

If you sit in a trotro or a long distance vehicle, someone will come on board and try to convince you to buy his ware just before the vehicle sets forth. He may start with a prayer (and a hymn) for a safe journey and the personal wellbeing of all on board after which he will cleverly introduce his ware. Some of these sellers make half the journey between Kumasi and Accra all the time talking about the commodity. When he gets off after making his sales and you think you’ll have some quiet for the rest of the journey, another seller takes over to guide you to Accra – with his own wares. Often, the captive audience is easily won over and you’ll see people buying the item as if they had been waiting all their lives to buy just that item. Some of these sellers have no other commodity than the Word of God, and the passengers pay for it by handing over their “donations”.

Sit on a toilet in the shopping mall and an add stares at you in the face. The parking place identifiers at the Accra Mall are not numbers or images of animals but yet another ad. Forget that ad and you will have a hard time remembering where you parked your car.

In certain neighbourhoods, it is not the cockcrow that wakes you up. It is little girls announcing the goods they are selling delicately balanced on their heads: enkoosiaaaaaa…, yeeeesss nkontommireeee…, eye tea breaaaaaad. This can go on intermittently throughout the entire day.

God, too, is being frantically sold to Ghanaians like any other consumer good. Billboards advertise religious conventions, retreats and redemption camps. The pastors and prophets, many of them neatly dressed in designer suits, are shown in huge figures. Some of them appear with their wives who are also prophetesses. The numerous mosques in Ghana blare out recorded passages from the Quran all day long. Nobody asks them to stop the noise!

The street sellers have learned something from the radio and television ads. As we wait to get on the ferry that will carry us across the Volta River (the Adomi Bridge is undergoing a 2-year refurbishing), the girl selling Abolo thrusts her wares into our faces assuring us that her Abolo is “Palatable and Delicious!” Yes, those were her very words and I must admit she got me on that one… But I didn’t touch the One Man Thousand or the equally delicious looking fried lobsters or oysters.

It is quite a relief when your holiday ends and you get away from all the aggressive advertising. But a few days after your return, you’ll find yourself missing them all. Hmmm… there’s really no place like home.

Kofi Amenyo (