A NOVELIST once wrote that: “You can tell the ideals of a nation by its advertisements.” Nigeria's ideals vary from place to place: the north is mostly Muslim, the south is mostly Christian or animist. Young and old, rural and urban, Ibo, Hausa and Yoruba: each group sees the world differently. So Nigerian advertisers must be both deft and sensitive.
Many southerners rather enjoy ads involving voluptuous women dancing suggestively. But it would be dangerous to run such an ad in the north. When ThisDay, a Nigerian newspaper, printed a lighthearted column speculating that the Prophet Muhammad might have enjoyed the Miss World contest, 200 people died in the ensuing riots, a ThisDay office was torched and the writer had to flee to Norway.
That was in 2002. Since then, media folk have been more careful. “If you put up a billboard in Kano [a northern city] and discover that it is minutely, minutely offensive to any cleric, you tear it down immediately,” says a southern ad executive.Muslims are not the only group it is unwise to upset. Gold Circle, a brand of condoms, ran an ad in 2009 in which a male motorist is stopped by the police. He is found to be carrying a packet of condoms. A policewoman returns them, having written her telephone number on the packet. The police did not find this funny. Prudently, the firm withdrew the ad.
Despite a recent dip, advertising spending has quintupled in real terms between 2001 and 2010, to 98 billion naira ($646m), reckons mediaReach OMD, an ad agency (see chart). This reflects the emergence of a middle class with cash to spare for branded goods. Buoyed by high oil prices and a measure of economic liberalisation, GDP per person rose by 70% between 2000 and 2009, to $1,112. Wages are still low by rich-country standards, but many Nigerians are entrepreneurial. Office workers save, buy a bus or a bar, put a cousin in charge and reap the profits. Then they flaunt it.Ads reveal which businesses are vibrant and competitive, and which are not. The most common business is small-scale agriculture, but its practitioners “don't advertise much”, notes Kelechi Nwosu of TBWA\Concept, another ad firm. Government ads are dull even by the low standards of official publicity worldwide—contracts often go to the connected, not the creative. That said, one of President Goodluck Jonathan's election slogans was pretty snappy: “I once had no shoes. If I can make it, you can too”.
The sexy sectors are mobile phones, banks, beer and food. Mobiles have hit Nigeria like a rainstorm in the desert. The number of connections has shot up from almost none in 2000 to 75m in 2009. Competition is bloody. Ads stress price (since Nigerians are both chatty and price-sensitive) and coverage (which is spotty).Ads for banks have taken off as the financial industry has been liberalised over the past decade. Most emphasise how trustworthy they are, a crucial point in a country where, if you don't write “This house is not for sale” on your house, someone may sell it while you are away. Stanbic's television ads show a banker so attentive that he watches over you as you sleep.
Beer ads tend to be macho. Guinness boasts that it is “without equal” and promotes “greatness”. The firm does not propagate the myth, widely believed in Nigeria, that its extra-strong African stout makes one a stallion in bed. But it does not go out of its way to scotch it, either. Star, a popular clear beer, appeals to patriotism: “I am Nigeria…and Star is my beer”.
Indeed, patriotism sells. Foreign firms assimilate or die. Virgin Nigeria, the local affiliate of a British airline, has changed its name to Air Nigeria, and insists in its publicity that it is “Passionately African”.
The more affluent, younger consumers (half the population is under 20) tend to be knowledgeable about foreign brands but intensely proud of their own culture, says Mr Nwosu. They refer to Nigeria as “Naija” or “9ja”, a term that implies a love of “the food, the flamboyant dressing, the mannerisms, the boisterous—some say loud—interaction among complete strangers” that remind you that you are not in Switzerland, says Bilkisu Labaran, a Nigerian presenter on the BBC World Service. Smart firms wrap themselves in Naija-ness. Etisalat, a mobile-phone carrier from the UAE whose Nigerian numbers begin with “0809”, has branded itself “0809ja”.
Running an ad agency in Nigeria is not easy. In 2009 TBWA\Concept spent over 7m naira on diesel for its backup generator, grumbles Mr Nwosu in his icily air-conditioned office in Lagos. Fitful power means firms often pay for television ads that viewers do not get to see.
Even so, the next big thing will be digital ads, says Tolu Ogunkoya of mediaReach OMD. Facebook has 3m Nigerian users and will probably have 7m this year, he reckons. “It may overtake radio and press in the not-too-distant future,” he predicts. Any business that relies on Nigerians' love of socialising ought to do well.