Billboards & the Girl Next Door

Advertisements, commercialism, images of beautiful people and things that we don’t have. It’s all around us. I have a fascination with advertisements and their power to influence consumers and ultimately challenge our beliefs  about happiness. I usually find myself analysing the ads that I see on a given day trying to reinterpret what the images are saying to me, or more often screaming at me. Check out one of my favourite documentaries on this subject at Media Education Foundation.


Fast Internet Advertisement

When we arrived in Nairobi after what seemed like an eternity on the airplane we were picked up by gracious friends and drove 20 minutes to our new home. My sons were still talking about how much they missed Bermuda and how much they would not enjoy being in Kenya until suddenly, only a few minutes from our house they saw this billboard below:


Drogba in a Samsung Ad

The reaction was immediate; ” Oh look there’s Drogba! Mommy we love this place…We like Kenya better than Bermuda because in Bermuda they don’t have posters of Drogba.” Normally I would challenge them to consider why their feelings had changed so quickly but in a haze of jet lag I just relaxed. Thankful for this poster we headed closer to our new neighbourhood.




Insurance ad

“For Every life changing moment”

In the coming days and weeks I would come across many more posters. Every time I saw a billboard the reaction was the same: I felt empowered.

Dettol Add. Boys playing football.

 Both football and Dettol are equally popular in Kenya

Then it finally occurred to me that for the first time in my life I was looking at billboards that looked like me 99% of the time. Even in our tiny island of Bermuda the default advertisement image is a young, white woman with blond hair and blue eyes who has the same waist size as a 12 year old. These billboards showed images of beautifully ordinary looking black people; women with full figures and grandparents with missing teeth and wrinkly smiles. Even the “young and beautiful” models with long weave comforted me as “the girl next door” rather than a taunting airbrushed beauty contest that I had already lost.


“You’re Beautiful When You Smile”

 Speaking of “the girl next door” here is a Dentyne ad.This picture gloriously magnifies everyone’s sister and mother for their own natural beauty. On the other hand it can also perpetuate the age old belief that women (especially black women) should always be smiling-even when they are doing housework. Otherwise they probably have an attitude. What do you think? Am I still beautiful when I don’t feel like smiling?

Extraordinary Banking for Extraordinary People




If this ad to the right represents an extraordinary person then who is the ordinary guy in the chair?  Perhaps the novelty is in his extraordinary posture or maybe he is about to come up with the solution for world peace…we’re waiting…

Open Happiness









This Coca Cola ad reminds me of my friend Tamika every time I see it. As much as this ad looks like “the girl next door” for Bermudians, most Kenyans do not look like her. Lighter toned skin, loose flowing curls that she grew rather than bought…perhaps this picture does for Kenyans what looking at a Cosmopolitan Magazine does for me. Overall this fun billboard image gets the black muzungu vote. Two thumbs up!!


Brookside Yogurt ad

OK so what do the readers think about this image above ? Look at the postures of the teen girl and the teen boy. He is looking down at her endearingly while she seems oblivious to his gaze. What about the woman to the left? She looks like she’s about to go for a jog but simultaneously looks indulgent (hey that’s how I look when I’m eating chocolate). And what about the man? Is he trying to show off his flabs? I mean abs?

Even Coca Cola tried hard to be culturally sensitive by displaying a black Santa for Christmas:)

In the midst of all of the celebration of the ordinary and billboards that actually resemble the people in your neighbourhood was this advertisement. A sad reminder that we still have not gotten over the effects of colonialism, oppression and its impact on our image of beauty. Keep in mind that these pictures were being taken while driving so a part of this image has been mistakenly cut off. Here is a billboard advertising for a skin lightening cream to take care of blemishes.

 I have no problem with the Asian beauty that they selected for this picture. What bothers me, however is that there are 4 pictures of this woman on this billboard, The first is the same girl with a darker complexion and obvious blemishes. Her head is tilted downward. As the pictures of the woman increase in size and the blemishes become less visible, her complexion also lightens and her gaze becomes more confident. The moral of the story? Lighter is better. Darker is less attractive and needs to be fixed. Artist, Ebony Patterson explores the causes and effects of skin bleaching in her artwork. Sadly, this practise has made it’s way back to the African continent as well. Check out more artwork from Ebony here.

Images, commercials and advertisements are everywhere screaming for our attention and calling us to become unsatisfied with the way we look or what we own. But as I told my 4 year old when he asked me what a commercial is I told him, “Commercials tell people what to buy but people always have the choice whether to buy something or not.” Let’s take a moment to buy into the unique beauty that we see in people every day.

Thanks for traveling with me on my journey through Nairobi today. Catch you next time!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s