On both sides of the 26 July Corridor connecting 6 October City and downtown Cairo there are billboards chockablock with advertisements for residential compounds, cars, restaurants, television shows, phone services, and much more.
This visual jungle is impossible to miss, even if some of the billboards were removed due to construction work on the monorail project. The billboards still blanket the sides of the road, partially blocking the view of iconic buildings especially alongside the 6 October bridge in downtown Cairo.
The size and type of outdoor advertisements change as you travel to the outskirts of the capital, such as in Shubra and Manial, where, for example, large-sized billboards advertising residential compounds make way for smaller banners that focus more on medical services, shops, pharmacies, phone services, clothing, and others.
This may be due to narrower streets in the suburbs compared to the major thoroughfares, as well as their targeting a different socio-economic class.
On the visual juggernaut of Cairo’s streets, one cannot view the billboards as merely the promotion of more commodities to increase demand. Rather, their content is a reflection of the country’s cultural, social and economic conditions, especially if we consider how the advertising industry has evolved in Egypt towards creating more demand for goods and services.
For example, buying a famous marque of German car, owning a brand-name phone, or living in an upscale area becomes an expression of an individual’s social status rather than just of the features of the commodity itself.
This promotional logic has become global, whether in developing or developed societies, and stimulates a state of insatiable consumption. Advances in advertising through smart tech and 3-D technologies, as well as designs intended to attract the attention of passersby on the streets, have become the norm.
Billboards are no longer limited to static signs, but have become digital screens in dazzling colours, expanded to take advantage of every possible inch on public streets. They have even reached the transport networks, including the Cairo metro system and the country’s airports.
The aim of all this is to capture, even if for a fleeting moment, the minds of passersby on the streets so that the slogans, contents, or symbols of the advertisements are seared into their memories and shape their dreams. Behind them are silent slogans, as noted by sociologist Sayed Oweis decades ago. He collected more than 1,000 words and phrases used on advertising vehicles to reveal how people deal with issues such as making a living, jealousy, their relationship with God, authority, and other things.
Today, the visual jungle of the billboards is a serious threat to society, which is already moving towards becoming a “spectator culture” of people and things in which individuals may learn to compare themselves to general conditions.
This is especially so at a time when one third of the population lives below the poverty line and suffers from developmental, spatial, and social disparities. It is not to mention the erosion of the middle class over the past three decades, making it impossible for many to pursue the dreams held out in the advertising slogans that pressure them psychologically.
GLOBAL DEBATE: Unlike adverts on television, online, or smartphones that can be turned off or have restricted access, outdoor advertising cannot be ignored because it is part of the public space that people encounter day in and day out on the streets.
This is why companies are increasingly turning to outdoor advertising, because it is more impactful on consumers, according to some studies.
There is a global debate about billboard advertising. One camp views it as a source of income for the government that can be used for infrastructure development because of the taxes it brings. It can boost the production cycle, this camp says. The other camp sees such advertising as violating the right of citizens to public space that is not commodified.
Critics of billboards say they pose various risks to the safety and security of communities, since they distract drivers and could cause accidents if placed randomly on turns and roundabouts. Moreover, they could stir feelings of social inadequacy and frustration among the poor or others who cannot afford the advertised goods. Such advertising is also a threat to the identity of cities and streets because they cover up iconic and characteristic features of urban areas and often commodify women’s bodies or promote goods that damage health, such as by promoting a culture of fast food and soft drinks.
For these reasons, lobbying groups have emerged around the world to reduce billboard advertising, such as Adblock Bristol in Britain and Resistance to Advertising Aggression (Résistance à l’Agression Publicitaire, RAP) in France. Some cities have already acquiesced to such pressure. For example, London banned outdoor advertisements on public transport in 2016, especially those depicting women’s bodies, while Singapore stopped outdoor advertisements of soft drinks in 2019 after an increase in diabetes.
These acts were preceded by steps in major cities including São Paulo, Mumbai, and Tehran to ban billboards or find artistic alternatives that could better reflect the culture and identity of these cities.
In Egypt, the debate is muted because such issues are not a priority for civil society and because of the government’s need to develop the advertising industry to revive the economic cycle as it represents a market estimated at LE5 billion. Nonetheless, the random character and sensitivity of some of the messages on advertising billboards prompted government intervention to regulate the sector through Law 208/2020, which in turn established a national body for public advertising that decides on the terms and specifications of billboards in order to preserve the urban landscape.
This body also intervenes to remove billboards if they endanger the safety of residents or roads or contradict society’s prevailing values and norms. The cabinet approved draft bylaws to regulate the body in April 2022.
Such regulation is needed because some outdoor advertisements have become controversial, especially with the rise of online public opinion on social media. For example, one billboard declared “Danger is Approaching” in December 2020, without further explanation. The authorities decided to remove the billboard because it may raise security concerns. It turned out, however, that it was only publicity for a film.
Similarly, the phrase “you are a spinster” on one billboard advertising oil products infuriated women who saw it as an insult. Acquiescing to pressure, the advertisers changed the phrase to “you are stronger than any proverb.”
These interventions by the government have not prevented other threats posed by billboards, however, especially about how certain consumer goods could provoke low-income people and perpetuate socio-economic disparities, in addition to other health, mental health, and behavioural risks.
GLOBAL EDUCATION: A massive billboard advertising a private international school located at the start of the 26 July Corridor shows a picture of a child in bright clothes looking at ease as one of his teachers points to a school textbook.
The words are few: just the name of the school written in English and the names of a handful of foreign academic institutions, implying the school applies international standards.
Clearly, the promotional attraction here is the positive interaction between the child and his teacher, which is something most Egyptian families aspire to for their children. But public schools lack this interaction due to overcrowding that impacts the quality of their education.
According to official statistics for 2020-21, there are 21,875,000 students at 48,500 public schools in Egypt and 9,169 private schools, including 1,000 international schools, attended by 2.5 million students.
The billboard for the international school only speaks to higher-income families since fees there could range from between LE80,000 to LE160,000 per year in kindergarten. It makes sense to place the billboard in front of Sheikh Zayed City with its high-end housing and economically affluent residents who believe that a private education, especially at an international school, is a passport to social advancement and preparing for the job market.
The problem is that advertisements for international schools that promote themselves as offering high academic quality and social standing highlight the extent of social disparities in educational services (in terms of availability, quality, or both) in rural or urban areas. They also increase the psychological pressure on families who prioritise education in their budgets.
Research on income and expenditure in 2019-20 conducted by the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS) showed that Egypt’s 26 million families spend LE482 billion on education, and the average spending on education for one family in a city can reach 12.5 per cent of their annual income, dropping to 9.2 per cent in the countryside.
If we add to this problem the dilemma of effective government control over the curricula at the private international schools, then these types of schools are a silent threat to social cohesion. They could create a culture of multidimensional isolation for a particular group in society that attends such schools and lives in upscale areas. This isolation could also extend to the workplace at major firms and even the membership of social clubs.
BUILDING WALLS: The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre famously wrote in his play No Exit that “hell is other people.”
But the billboards located along Egyptian roads promote residential compounds as being removed from the noise and bustle of others. They show residents finding neighours who look like them, or living next to celebrities who usually star in advertisements for residential compounds, or enjoying integrated facilities and services that are lacking in densely populated areas.
Two years ago, an advertisement for upscale housing in a satellite city east of Cairo was at the centre of a controversy because it used the phrase “people here are like each other.” Some viewed this phrase as classist and racist. But the controversy has not stopped advertisers from continuing to use such crude messaging in promoting residential compounds, especially with the rise in demand for them.
For example, one billboard in 6 October icty declares that it is promoting “a community in harmony”.
The advertisements for the residential compounds promise a lifestyle that is the polar opposite to that of the majority in Egypt. One such billboard stands outside Sheikh Zayed city, showing a cheerful scene of artificial lakes. A visit to the developer’s website reveals that prices start at LE4.5 million, justified because of the amenities provided such as swimming pools, gyms, international schools, international hospitals, shopping centres, and entertainment.
Such advertisements alienate the rest of society. Onlookers who see what is being advertised, but cannot afford it, end up feeling that this housing dream, promoted as normal life, is impossible and unattainable. Meanwhile, the reality in the capital and its suburbs is one of massive overcrowding without breathing room or green spaces.
It is true that such gaps have always existed in residential areas in Egypt, exemplified in the contrast between upper-class neighbourhoods such as Zamalek and lower-class ones such as Shubra. But perhaps the difference is that these neighbourhoods remained connected due to geographical proximity. Zamalek and Shubra, for example, are only separated by the Nile.
On the other hand, the geographical distance between the new compounds in the desert outskirts of Cairo and the popular areas in Greater Cairo reduces the social interaction between the two, even though the road network has improved in recent years making it easier for Cairenes to commute to work at the compounds or live nearby in middle or low-income housing. This is reflected in the map of neighbourhoods housing varying economic and social classes in 6 October city, for example.
Another aspect of advertisements for high-end housing on billboards is that real estate is the most-valued and invested-in asset for many people. The head of every Egyptian household either dreams of owning an apartment or of buying another one for his or her son to take over. This explains why there are more than ten million empty housing units in Egypt, most of them in the new cities. It also explains why real estate takes the lion’s share of billboard advertising.
Even with the recession during the Covid-19 pandemic, 42 per cent of billboards between March and August 2020 advertised real estate, according to a survey by advertising data service company AdMazad, out of more than 3,000 outdoor advertisements in Cairo and on the North Coast.
“SUPERPOWER” PHONES: “In your hands, you hold a superpower” is the promotional slogan used on a billboard advertising smartphones on the 26 July Corridor.
Research online revealed that the price of the relevant phone ranges between $1,000 and $1,500 and that its key features are face ID and three cameras. The price was not on the billboard, however, only the promise that you can pay in installments over 18 months without interest.
The price of the phone is nearly 10 times the minimum monthly income in Egypt of LE2,400 or $150 (even before the drop in the value of the pound against the US dollar in March). Nevertheless, some believe that this phone can add prestige and distinction to its owner, or more realistically social status.
Promoting phones at this price and expecting demand from specific social classes reveals the consumer obsession with owning modern technology in Egypt. The number of cell phone users exceeded 100 million in October 2021. Despite the economic impact of the pandemic, Egypt imported cell phones worth $1.6 billion in 2021.
Promoting smartphones to consumers supports the government’s plans for digital transition in financial and social services, especially with the 63.9 million Internet users having cell phones in January 2022. However, there are risks to this consumer expansion, especially with the addiction to social media which is used by 42 per cent of Egyptians. Egypt ranks 16th globally in terms of time spent on social-media sites, especially through smartphones, according to a July 2020 report by WER Social Influencers.
However, addiction to the Internet and smartphones could create behavioural problems in society, since being isolated in a virtual world can generate indifference to community issues. Perhaps the irony here is that while the cell-phone advertisement mentioned above tells us about how a particular smartphone gives its owner “superpower”, the owner could in fact lose his humanity when it becomes an obsession owing to his photographing road accidents.
Police and ambulance personnel often complain about cars slowing down on the road to gawk at an accident scene, due to a culture of watching and filming accidents and sharing them on social media, instead of providing assistance to the victims.
A SOCIAL DRINK: Billboards advertising soft drinks also bombard us with messages about individual and social incentives, inviting us to buy these drinks to live the moment or refresh ourselves without promoting any health benefits.
For example, a slogan on billboards across town declares that “together, a good meal is magic” or, during Ramadan, that “Iftar is best in a gathering.” These phrases implicitly promote the idea that the soft drinks consumed at such occasions have family benefits.
To attract consumers, advertisers use celebrities and sponsor social and charitable events to show their social responsibility and lessen the impact of the capitalist onslaught on the poorest echelons of society. The advertisers of soft drinks dismiss criticisms directed at them, whether in medical studies accusing them of causing obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and so on, or by intellectuals who see them as a tool of US hegemony aiming to replace traditional drinks.
In Egypt, doctors are forever warning against consuming soft drinks, especially since there are six million people with high blood pressure and seven million diabetics in the country, according to the Cabinet’s Information Decision Support Centre (IDSC).
Outdoor soft drink advertisements continue to multiply as this commodity becomes an industry and investment that relies on high consumption by Egyptian young people (more than 21 million between the ages of 18 and 29 years old). A news report revealed that in 2014 the Egyptian market consumed 2.2 billion litres of soft drinks. Since the population grew from 86.5 to 101 million between 2014 and 2021, this means consumption also grew.
While the pandemic reduced the consumption of soft drinks due to closures and social distancing, as soon as the pandemic receded, soft drink companies started pumping in new investments. In November 2021, Coca-Cola announced an investment of $1 billion in the Egyptian market over the next five years after its acquisition of Coca-Cola Egypt.
While this investment supports the Egyptian economy, it also raises questions about the risks of expanding the consumption of soft drinks, which in turn form advertising alliances with fast-food restaurants to create an unhealthy food combo that threatens health. In 2019, some 39.7 per cent of adults in Egypt suffered from obesity, according to a survey conducted by the 100 Million Good Health campaign that covered 49.7 million citizens. This places a huge burden on the healthcare system in Egypt.
These are some of the silent threats behind the billboard slogans on Cairo’s streets. Tighter monitoring is required by the government and its agencies, as well as a bigger role to be played by civil society, in controlling the content of the advertisements to ensure road safety and reduce provocation or animosity owing to enhanced consumerism.
This is especially the case in Egypt, where the economy and societal values and norms should emphasise a culture of productivity rather than of consumerism.
The author is a researcher at Al-Ahram.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 May, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.