The Age of Information & Communications Technology is impacting advertising globally but Ethiopia is yet to catch up. DAWIT ENDESHAW, FORTUNE STAFF WRITER finds that the advertising business is still heavily reliant on print and traditional electronic media and though costly, is growing.
The walls of his office adorned with pictures, certificates and awards along with the half a century old autograph, tell a brief story of the industry. Anbessa Advertising in the age old Philips Building on Chad Street, puts one back in historical perspective, which helps to understand Ethiopia at present.
The indigenous way, intrinsic to the evolution of trading with money in the 19th Century, was ‘word of mouth’ advertising where merchants had their products announced in public or carried their products, shouting thir names. This is still done by vendors of various goods who shout out their wares through quiet streets of city neighbourhoods.
The rare and sporadic advertisements in print, rolled off the press a century ago with the birth of the unforgettable Aimero, Ethiopia’s first newspaper.
Others spawned later in the 20th Century included Addis Zemen, which remains a staple daily.
”Since working without the assistance of advertisements is just like walking without a stick for a blind person, let us advertise our desires! Let us not forget that while its cost is minimum, its advantages are however maximum!” reads the various editions of the 1950’s edition of Addis Zemen.
Though new to the culture, the advertising industry picked up quickly, with 34 companies transacting business that reached over a million Birr on those days. The shift in political ideology and economy of the 1970’s, killed this impetus and the nation ended up with just one state-owned enterprise advertising the (also) state-owned Ethiopian Airlines, banks and insurance companies.
The fifty year journey from the last days of the monarchical modernity call of the then regime that was stagnant as the national lottery came into being.
With the assistance of the Americans, the agrarian-based economy saw progressive movement in the manufacturing and service sectors.
Anbessa was one pioneer that survived the changes in regime and was revived, re-opening its doors for business in the early 1990’s.
The first advertising piece, too, was connected to the indigenous, oral advertising model mentioned earlier to promote an alien product, the lottery.
“I used to have one donkey – I loaded a bag of money on the donkey’s back and marched down along Churchill Avenue telling people that they better buy and take a chance,” remembered Woubshet Workalemahu, managing director of Anbessa.
Unlike old times where advertisements were limited to individuals, there are now companies that take the advertising business to the higher level.
Up until 2011, only five others along with Anbessa took the industry seriously and obtained business licences to do the job. This was the year when a law on advertising was issued, introducing mandatory registration of advertising businesses.
Five years down the road, the number advertising companies is now a little over 1,000.
As the number of advertising agencies increases and competition prevails, one would expect a decline in price, but paradoxically, both are hiking upwards.
Fifty years ago when Wubshet produced a single radio premium for the international brand Philips, his pay was merely 30 Br, with an additional 110 Br for going to most cities in the country to physically display the ad in public centres. Colleagues used mobile cinema projectors carried by car to advertise Philips’ famous radios, radio recorders and lights.
Nowadays, with the advent of ever-evolving technology, there are very different challenges. The the average cost of a one minute television advertisement, has reached 250,000 Br and a one minute ad produced for radio broadcast, 25,000 Br.
“The growth has been moving steadily up,” Serawit Fikre, owner of Serawit Promotions, a big player in the industry since the early 2000’s said.
His experience shows that cost has risen ten-fold in the past 15 years. But the cost of celebrity- character based promotion still stuck.
“Our ads were and still are celebrity based, as they provided options for low paid artists in the theatre and film industries,” said Serawit.
For small companies like Mestehaley Advertising Company, television and radio business is lucrative but hard to penetrate.
“The advertising business in electronics media of radio and television is fully dominated by few,” said Mehret Tadesse, manager of Mestehaley Advertising Company, who further explained that it is mostly done through group affiliation more so than profession.
The struggle of big and small fish in advertising has lessened, as the sector, protected by law, is reserved for Ethiopian nationals and foreign nationals of Ethiopian origin only. The law however leaves room to accommodate advertisements produced by foreign nationals, as long as this is done through a local advertising agent.
“Such can be a good strategy to protecting some social assets of the country, and yet respect the principle of free market,” an expert that asked to remain anonymous reflected. “But this alone does not protect the society from collateral damage ads bring in.”
In his opinion the industry so far has been left to thrive but now strict guidance and follow-up are critical.
In March 2016, a bold and serious decision was taken by the Ethiopian Broadcasting Authority (EBA), banning six broadcasters from airing three advertisements from giant breweries. The ban was imposed for the advertisements’ general tendencies to encroach on areas shielded by law: protection of minors, and assets of the society.
Most advertisers, including Woubshet and Serawit Fikere, agree that intervention is needed. They have their own take on where that intervention needs to come from.
A study conducted on 250 residents of Addis two years ago, assessing the impact of alcohol ads and alcohol consumption, concluded that youth and adolescents are more vulnerable to ads. They spend more time watching TV, and content usually leaves out negative impacts.
Parents reckon on the same. Fikerte Hailesellasie, 39, and a mother of two boys 12 and 8 is very concerned about her children’s attitudes towards TV.
“My son could not go to sleep, except while watching TV,” she told Fortune who met her while she was shopping for holiday gifts. Her effort to get them into the reading habit by constantly buying them books failed.
“They were never happy with the books,” the mother reflected on her challenge. But she noted that a DVD worth 15 Br would do the trick.
Fikerte and her husband also have a hard choice to make when it comes to how to spend evenings at home. The father wants to be with his children but cannot afford to miss watching or listening to the news. Having them both is difficult as invariably he asked to explain the ads that follow the news or are broadcast in the middle of it.
“Unfortunately it is usually for beer or condoms,” Fikerte said smiling sheepishly. Even the informative anti-corruption pieces are tricky.
The boundary is so gray, between information and promotion, said Gubae Gundarta, reflecting on the recent campaign by one of the big breweries targeting school age children, –
“It is about constant hammering,” said Gubae in response to the ban on the three advertisements. “They will grow anticipating prohibition.”
He shared the view that the matter was simply too delicate, that ads should be produced by professionals of high standard and has to be screened to protect the society.
The law on advertisements proclaimed four years ago has detailed guidance and prescriptions to follow.
“It was better than never,” a psychologist-lecturer, who for research purposes compiled data said. “The worrisome thing is that the law is not strictly being implemented.”
However, the regulatory body asserted that it had taken strong measures.
“What we did in March was not the first, but maybe of highest impact, as the ads were overwhelming,” Workenh Tuffa, communication head at EBA told Fortune.
At the beginning of the year there was a back and forth discussion on the content of an advertisement made to promote the new locally processed Anchor Milk.
“After brief suspension, an agreement was amicably reached to revise the ad’s content,” Workeneh said.
Now there are also emerging companies that offer a range of services, from conducting marketing research on how the end consumer perceives a certain product, to which tools are acceptable the products, developing strategies and undertaking the public relation task.
“The bridge between a product and the media the centrepiece where content is developed should be the intervention point to work on the industry,” said Addis Alemayehu, managing partner of 251 Communications.
The company, established five years ago, derived its name from area code of Ethiopia, (251). It is one of the advertising and communications companies aspiring to bring bigger scope to the advertisement sector.
Managing promotional material for clients’ products can be done via broadcast and print media, dealing the price following the progress is their task. Not only are they responsible for the below the line ads that is outdoor ads.
In five years 251 has managed to earn a client base of more than 70 companies. The cost here too is shooting up.
“The business is not yet exhaustively utilized, but now we have brewery companies that spent from 50 million Br up to 100 million Br a for a single year.”
The industry has evolved and the impact has grown so big. It affects families, individual behaviours and businesses at the highest level.
“In the running the company, the highest expenditure is for marketing, promotion and advertisement,” an employee in one of the highly competitive breweries disclosed to Fortune. “It is a monthly expenditure of over a million dollars.”
People like the parent and the psychologist researcher however, are wary of the growth.
“Unless the government take this industry seriously and follows-up closely now, it will be too difficult to hold the big muscle that is being built,” the psychologist said.
Follow-up and implementation of trespass of the law is so vivid on the streets, and ads not suitable for children are aired before 11.00pm, as the law prescribes.
“We need a revision of the advertisement proclamation that can fix this problem,” said Addis.
A billboard advertising a certain brand of shoe was placed for few months in one centre of the city, showing a man wearing the country’s military uniform. No action has been taken by the authorities who are there to make sure that the law is observed.
“A self regulatory association can be ideal to guide the industry in terms of ethical standards,” Serawit opined, “but setting up one has been the most difficult challenge members have so far faced.”
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