ARCON’s ban on foreign models offers no redemption for Nigeria’s creative scene

A draconian policy that brings in more questions than solutions

Why do Nigerian regulatory bodies always think bans, or alternate draconian measures, are the best way to deal with any and every issue? Although bans work in some situations, they can be a slapdash method that do not wholesomely address the issue they’re meant to tackle. Take the recent ban on the use of “foreign talent” in advertising campaigns targeted at Nigerians, an announcement that was made by the Advertising Regulatory Council of Nigeria (ARCON), and is set to take effect from October 1.

Justifying this move, ARCON claims the incoming ban falls in line with the Nigerian government’s policy of “developing local talent” and promoting local economic growth. Naturally, the announcement has been met with mixed reactions from Nigerians within the country and in the diaspora, as well as Africans across the continent.

The obvious argument for those in favour of the ban is to echo ARCON’s already stated motivations, claiming that it will serve as a boost for Nigeria’s creative scene due to the opportunities that should open up. To believe that, though, could be seen as being wilfully naïve, largely because, as the last few years have shown, enforcing strict measures to keep things local hasn’t worked too well in the government’s favour.

Many concerned about the ban have noted that ARCON, which finally changed its name from Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria, in a bid to fully assume regulatory authority, is looking to exceed its previously established limits as a body. Even with the name change and a new policy framework, the now-regulatory body is offering a flattening resolution that ignores several nuances. For example, the line between foreign and native talent is much thinner than the body seems to be taking note of. Beyond its local borders, Nigerians live everywhere, so does the ban apply to Nigerians who were born in Africa and across the world? What about those with multiple nationalities? What about those who’ve intermittently lived between Nigeria and elsewhere?

There’s also the obvious fact that we live in a global village, and a lot of the companies advertising to Nigerians have an international and continental presence, which makes it a bane—and quite honestly, insensitive—to ask for country-specific ad campaigns with local talent only. When creating international or continental campaigns, companies like Cadbury and Unilever don’t always pay attention to individual countries, except they’re being executed on an individual country scale. In multi-country ads, they recruit dark skin models to represent the African countries because we wouldn’t know the difference between a South African and a Nigerian.

With this ban, does that mean Multichoice can’t air an ad featuring Nigerians and non-Nigerians during the halftime show of a Premier League football match, which is syndicated on satellite channels across Africa? Does this mean that an ad geared to black people across the world can’t be shown on local stations in the country? Does it mean that campaign images featuring international, non-Nigerian sport stars and artists won’t be shown on billboards along roads and highways in the country? There are several unanswered questions surrounding this hasty decision.

ARCON’s impending ban is an overt attempt at controlling the direction of ad campaigns in Nigeria, rather than it is a wholesome attempt at regulating. It would be wrong to dismiss the fact that foreign-looking and foreign-sounding elements are often deemed as more appealing, hence the hunt for people who look exotic and sound non-Nigerian in many local ads. Back in the day, there was a widely shown ad by a soap company that only featured light-skinned women, an implied but well-known hint at skin colour, which continues till this day via ads by local skincare brands.

As we all know, colourism is a scab in African culture. Although few talk about it, it is represented in various aspects, not just ads but also in the characters we see in films and shows, and even presenters on TV. The policy, effective from 1st October might offer a solution to colourism in the country. In recent years, brands from several industries have faced criticism for their colourism. In 2017, Nivea faced criticism in West Africa  for a problematic ad which features a black woman applying the Natural Fairness moisturiser to her body and her skin becoming visibly lighter.

Even within this glimmer of positivity, it might prove exclusionary to Nigerians of a fairer skin tone, or those with dual nationalities. It will probably affect Africans who work within the Nigerian creative space. The truth is, there are too many moving parts in the world of advertising that makes it impossible to deem a sweeping ban to be the solution to whatever problems there seem to be. Yes, many brands and advertising agencies have always favoured voice actors with “foreign” accents, but the new policy states that only Nigerian talent should be used, which makes it application to accents rather nebulous.

“Buy Naija to grow Naira” has been the rallying cry of Nigeria’s current federal government administration, an attempt to foster the economy by emphasising a priority on local goods and services. So far, it’s proved to be a scam and a failure. It even went as far as the closure of land borders for about two years, but the move to force Nigerians to consume more local products backfired, and it has contributed to the consistently rising prices of food and household commodities. This ARCON ban falls in line with this patriotic ideal to prioritise local, and the outcome might not be great.

What happens when international companies boycott Nigeria out of its global and continental campaigns? What happens if, instead of creating more opportunities, the ban streamlines advertising to a select few creatives? What happens if the quality of local-only ads doesn’t amount to better quality? What happens if the revenue in the advertising space shrinks because multinationals don’t see any reason to invest in Nigerian campaigns due to the stringent policy?

This ban is raising more questions than delivering a great solution, and it’s clearly not the redemption for the Nigerian creative and advertising space some might think it is.

Written by Tela Wangeci and Dennis Ade Peter