Johannesburg: If the city’s ‘personality’ were to be judged by its advertisements – billboards, TV and radio ads, street posters, ads on taxis, trains and buses – what kind of ‘person’ would it be? My conclusion, having driven the highways and byways, watched SABC and listened to the radio, is that the City of Gold is a booze-loving, junk food guzzling guy with a taste for cars, money, hi-tech gadgets and, not least, sex.
That’s not to say Joburg doesn’t have a sensitive, feminine or thoughtful side. It’s just that hedonism is by far ‘his’ most overriding trait, tending to marginalise softer qualities in the pursuit of power, parties and fast living.
Take the N1 highway coming south from Gold Reef City past the CBD towards Empire Road turnoff (Soweto highway): the first billboard advertises Black Label beer, and next up is Sedgwicks Old Brown Sherry. As you pass under the bridge, you can’t miss the McDonald’s wall mural on the left, and in the city on the right, the loudest ad is a flashing LED Coca-Cola sign. The next billboard brand you’ll see is for Jameson Irish Whiskey.
The city’s appetite for tipple doesn’t diminish as you go north. It just gets pricier, as evidenced by the huge billboard showcasing Moët & Chandon champagne next to Hyde Park corner in Jan Smuts Avenue. But it’s moving pictures that the liquor companies really splash out on. Trending on YouTube as South Africa’s most popular TV ad is the one for Bells Whisky, featuring a man whose intrepid spirit shows what it takes to be a man of character.
Go to the movies at Ster Kinekor, and you’ll see another flighty if not cynical connection being made between alcohol and human virtue, in the Absolut Vodka ad aligning the product to talented young artists. Money is no object when it comes to producing liquor ads, apparently, so watch out for the Oude Meester brandy TV ad, which features Mandela actor Idris Elba, who was flown out to Cape Town recently for the shoot.
“Johannesburg’s adverts focus a lot on having fun. It’s all about lifestyle, and lifestyle seems to be about the high life. And that seems to mean drinking, parties, celebrities and gossip,” says media analyst and commentator Chris Moerdyk.
Staying connected with the latest technology is another big advertising focus in the city, so you won’t drive too far before seeing a billboard for Vodacom, MTN or Cell C.
Equally so the banks, which are competing strongly in every media space, be it radio, TV, billboards, street posters or newspapers. Prime time radio listeners will know all about irritating ‘Steve’ from First National Bank, which proves that annoying ads certainly stand out, even if they might not sell the product.
On the subject of ads that hint at adversity in some way, Johannesburg, fittingly, has plenty of those. There’s a twin ad on Jan Smuts avenue that features a naked fat guy, with the tagline ‘Roof sagging?’ followed by a smiling, trim guy, symbolising a roof specialist service. But the prize must go to the billboard next to Garden Court Milpark Hotel on Empire Road, depicting a pair of unlocked shackles, advertising a law firm specialising in divorce.
Sometimes, unintended urban comedy can be found in adverts that inadvertently synchronise or clash. Take the inspired billboard on Rivonia Road advertising Allan Gray investment brokers. It states simply ‘DIST(R)ACTION’ (the R is reversed), and underneath in small font, ‘is the enemy’. This is followed by a series of billboards for the strip club, The Grand, affording the Allan Gray commercial an interesting new dimension.
Sex sells, and it sells big in the City of Gold. You need only look at the classifieds in any of the newspapers, even traditional ‘family’ papers such as The Star, to appreciate the thriving industry that these smalls support. And if Joburg’s taxi ranks and street poles are anything to go by, we have a large population of men who desire more by way of gratifying their lady friends. ‘Penis enlargement’ is one of the city’s most prolific offerings.
In the leafier suburbs, meanwhile, there’s no shortage of commercials for strip clubs such as Teazers and The Lollipop Lounge, while adult shops like Adult World don’t even need to advertise given the sheer number of their brazenly announced outlets.
Clever marketers even manage to infuse sex into inert products like soap. The Lux advert that airs during prime time on SABC2 is undeniably ‘come-to-bed’ sexy, for example. Sexy insinuations are linked to our appetite for voyeurism, another strong trait in Joburg’s
‘advertisement’ personality, confirms Moerdyk. Hence the slew of DStv ‘adverts’ for the Oscar Pistorius trial, which is being covered live, and the ever more sensationalist posters by the Daily Sun, with headlines such as ‘Horny tokoloshes poke my wife!’.
Perhaps all this hedonism and overindulgence explains why spiritual institutions like the Rosebank Union Church and Jewish Chabad House seem to have such impressive marketing budgets, with prominent street ads competing with the blue chip companies in the Sandton area. Joining the mêlée of ‘higher power’ propagators is American self-help guru John Demartini, whose ads around these parts might even outnumber the DA’s election posters.
You might not like commercial Joburg’s fickle, large-living ‘personality’ – one commentator personified it simply as ‘Anna Nicole Smith’ – but one thing is certain, it will only get brighter and more colourful in the future as outdoor LED advertising multiplies. “Outdoor LED advertising is definitely the way of the future for Joburg, although it’ll initially be only the big players – like banks and cellphone companies – that will be able to afford to use it,” says David Ingham of Pure Media, whose company is entering this exciting market.
However, it’ll always be in the minutiae that you’ll find the more interesting, complex traits of this city. The spirit of protest is alive and well in Joburg, for one, and for me it was summed up by a bumper sticker reading: “Proudly e-tag free!”.
This post was first published in the April 2014 issue of The Media magazine.
Follow Helen Grange on Twitter @helgrange