Top global brands accused over controversial 'painted home' adverts in Africa

Pepsi advert

Multinationals like Pepsi have been accused of exploiting people in developing countries to gain free advertising for their brands (Photos: Cleveland Aaron)

Global brands, including Coca-Cola, Unilever and Vodafone offer African township residents a ‘lick of paint’ in exchange for turning their homes into advertisements

Visitors arriving by air to the Mozambican capital of Maputo are greeted with an unrelenting barrage of international logos. Pepsi, Colgate, Vodacom (Vodafone), Coca-Cola and Unilever soap powder Omo are just some of the brands splashed across the crumbling township dwellings and small businesses that flank Avenida Acordos de Lusaka, the road leading from Maputo’s international airport to the city centre.

Owners claim the fee for allowing their walls, homes and businesses to be turned into enormous, choicely situated adverts is often ‘the paint alone’ and sometimes the promise of minor items of branded merchandise such as a cool box or sunshade.

Every day community elder Lucia Gazite sits on a stool in front of her modest house selling soft drinks. Her home’s 12-metre wide exterior wall is entirely covered with a Pepsi logo. She agreed to it as 'some men came' – she doesn’t know where from – and promised her a sunshade to sit under whilst she sells her drinks. It’s been ‘at least seven months’ and she’s yet to receive anything.

Lucia says she’d like to paint over the advert but can’t afford to. 'In 2009 I had a Vodacom advert on this wall but I never received anything. I hoped this would work out differently but it hasn’t. I’m angry but I don’t know what to do. My neighbour painted over their wall (also adorned with an enormous Pepsi logo) but I can’t.'

Across the road it’s a similar story for 23-year old Isa (she refused to give a last name). Her small bar is a red and white shrine to Coca-Cola. She was promised – 'by the men who come with Coca-Cola signs and bunting' - a refrigerator in return for allowing the painting. She’s visited four different Coca-Cola suppliers to obtain the fridge but was turned away by them all. This was eight months ago. The fridge is yet to materialise and the men that come with new Coca-Cola marketing materials claim to know nothing of the promised fridge.

No one had explained to Lucia and Isa that Avenida Acordos de Lusaka is one of the most high-value, strategic marketing locations in Maputo. Both gasped at the thousands paid by brands to use the official billboards scattered down the road.

'I had no idea,' said Isa. 'If I’d known I’d have asked for money. A few hundred dollars a month would change my life. I don’t mind putting up a sign for free so customers know I sell Coke. But my whole bar has been painted – and I don’t just sell Coke.'

Broken promises of money

Townships and rural villages all over Maputo, and indeed across vast swathes of Africa, are saturated with painted advertisements of this kind with tales of reneged promises and low or no-payment common.

According to Accra based photographer Nana Kofi Acquah entire rural villages and townships in Ghana are painted with the logos of telecommunications companies – MTN, Airtel, Vodaphone - with nothing but ‘the paint’ offered as compensation.

'It’s everywhere and most people don’t get paid,' he says. 'I’ve even seen MTN (Africa’s largest telecommunications provider) paint the coconuts at Prampram beach in their loud yellow. It was an eyesore.'

Kibera - one of the largest slums in Nairobi, Kenya – was the target of a campaign by Coca-Cola in 2010 to coincide with the opening of a Coca-Cola sponsored drinking well at a local primary school. Two years later most of the adverts are still visible.

Interviews conducted by Kibera based lawyer and founder of youth project L.I.S.T (Living In A Shanty Town) Pauline Wanje and journalist cum local NGO worker Tommie Vinton, found compensation received by residents was erratic. Some business owners were told they’d be paid, 'after the bosses saw the adverts' and weren’t, whilst others were told by the painters, 'Painting their dirty walls was the companies way of giving back to the community.'

One shopkeeper who didn’t wish to be named said he received 500 KES (£3.75) for allowing his kiosk to be painted with the logo (still visible today) whilst a community youth group received 10,000 (£75.13) KES to support their work.

The justification by many brands for engulfing entire building exteriors with adverts and offering little or no financial compensation in return is that they’re giving a ‘free facelift’ and ‘weather proofing’ to dilapidated buildings who’s owners couldn’t otherwise afford one.

Shankar Krishnan, CEO of Varun Beverages (Zambia) Limited whom handle PepsiCo’s bottling operation in Mozambique, Morocco and Zambia, told the Ecologist the adverts added 'vibrant decoration' to townships and that 'the paint helps to fortify walls from the elements of nature that can wear them down.' 

Likewise Coca-Cola Sabco, the Coca-Cola arm responsible for Mozambique, Namibia, Tanzania, South Africa, Uganda and Kenya, views the practice as, 'A voluntary and non-compulsive engagement that benefits both parties,' and described recipients as, 'Only too happy to get a free facelift of their premises.'  

Whether having a building-size logo splattered across a wall constitutes a 'facelift' is debatable. Often it’s only the highly visible walls that are painted with no additional paint offered as payment to fix up the rest of the property.

Lagos based Dan Eskiepe, MD/CEO of IMS Advertising and West Africa Director of Interbrand Sampson thinks the ads, ‘Deface the environment’, and advises, ‘A more structured, regulated use to avoid the current clutter and environmental pollution of landscapes.’

Other parties see the practice as unethical.

Accra based Communications Officer for the African Women's Development Fund Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah describes it as a 'heinous practice' that deliberately targets people in poverty. 'No one else would accept their homes being branded in corporate colours just to get a lick of new paint.' 

Aragão N’hassengo, a restaurant manager at Maputo’s upmarket Southern Sun hotel and township resident, offered a more impassioned précis.

'It’s an outrage,' he said. 'Do you see brands painting their names on the side of fancy shopping malls and middle class homes? Of course not. Because they know they can’t get away with it. They take advantage of township people because they know they can. They’re taking advantage of our desperation.'

Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Unilever and Vodafone respond

The Ecologist contacted the brands mentioned in the article for a response. All companies pointed out they had not broken any laws, had abided by local advertising codes and that they conducted social projects in townships communities.

Unilever’s South Africa office said they were contacting their colleagues in various African territories and would provide a response in ‘due course’. A week later no comment had been received from Unilever.

Vodacom (Vodaphone) said, ‘We don’t have a set approach to how we place adverts’ and that they were ‘keen to look into the specific instances where people say they didn’t receive what they expected.’ Having been provided by The Ecologist with a road name and the townships in Maputo the practice was happening in they stated they needed more specific information to be able to investigate.

MTN said the painting of houses was ‘part of our brand activation strategy’ but it has since been ‘put on hold’. They offered no further comment about plans to paint over the existing adverts.

PepsiCo’s arm in Mozambique Varun Beverages (Zambia) Limited, stated: 'Painting walls of homes with colorful branding is a common way that companies engage in the communities around Africa... We always receive permission from home owners before commencing such projects, and to the extent we can do more to communicate with members of the community about the purpose and mutual benefits of this work, we will gladly do so.'

Coca-Cola Sabco confirmed they did not pay for ‘signage’ and stated that non-commercial buildings were branded only in exceptional cases, consent forms were always signed and that they were often approached by building owners to ‘facelift’ their properties. They said: 

‘It is our deliberate marketing strategy to ensure brand visibility as much as possible but this is done without circumventing local laws or regulations, neither do we seek to exploit people. The fact that every branded wall is accompanied with a consent form means we enter into a free-willing negotiation. We do not find it necessary to compensate people so as to be seen as being charitable. Already we have several sustainability programs that support every community in which we do business.’ 

Residents and business owners with Coca-Cola adverts painted on their walls in all of the Maputo townships visited by The Ecologist claim to have not been ask to sign a consent form and were unaware of any Coca-Cola sponsored programs supporting their community.

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