Wednesday, 11 January 2012

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!


  1. I've been absent for some time, but now I remember why I used to love this website. Thanks , I will try and check back more frequently. How frequently you update your site?
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  2. Hello Jose,
    Thanks for leaving your comment:). I used to update this blog weekly but I got a bit busy this month. I hope to post another update really soon since Sunday coming is my birthday:).

  3. This post received a lot of good feedback and was featured in the January 13, 2012 newsletter of SignValue Billboard Valuation & Advisory Services

  4. Hi there,

    Thank you for sharing this post. I'm the girl in the Coca Cola ad. I didn't get to see the billboard anywhere in the U.S. as it mostly went international. It's awesome to know your thoughts about it. What does black muzungu vote mean?

    Much love! xoxo

    1. Hi Dominique,
      Wow! Your face was all over Kenya last year and the year before an you are absolutely beautiful. My observations of the billboards around is within the Kenyan context. Most Kenyans do not look like me or you so the image of a light-skinned woman with long flowing hair is a beauty image that most Kenyans cannot attain. When I looked at the add however I always felt empowered because back in my own country, Bermuda, the add would have featured a white woman with blonde hair and blue eyes. The 'black muzungu' comment was said 'tongue in cheek'. Muzungu is a kiswahili word that means 'foreigner' or 'white person'. Here they are one in the same. There cannot be a 'black muzungu' because of the fact that everyone of African descent is from this continent. When I went around snapping pictures with my camera of billboards I had no idea how far reaching my own commentary of billbards in Kenya would go. So happy that you found your billboard image. It is absolutely stunning.

  5. Dominique Coleman8 March 2014 at 08:22

    Hey there,

    Thank you for the compliments and I am really happy that you were empowered by the billboard. I was too. It's very awesome to see women of color shown in this way just simply enjoying life. It's even more cool for it to be shown with natural hair because so many of us struggle with our thick, curly, poufy, nappy, hard to manage hair. I know I do each and every day :) Well keep snapping photos if you can. It's really nice to see what is happening in other countries from your point of view and not the point of view from some newscaster or paid biased journalist. Cheers! xoxo

    1. Hey Doninique,
      Most welcome. It was my pleasure. I had no idea that this blogpost would gather so much traction when I decided to write it. It's a subject that is close to my heart.

      By the way, my hair is rather thin and coily. I absolutely love your hair and wondered if it was all yours when I saw the add:). Enjoy your think, poufy hair:).

      If you do anymore addds please let me know so that I can look out for them.

      One of the items on my bucket list is to get featured in an add:)

      By the way, I'm slowly moving my blog to wordpress so if you wish to follow here's the link:

      My email: