The New Times (Kigali)

10 May 2014

Rwanda: Airtel Pulls Down Controversial Billboard

Billboards advertising Airtel Rwanda's services were yesterday pulled down after the illustration on the boards sparked controversy among a section of the public who felt it was "indecent and objectifying women."

The visuals feature artiste James Ruhumuriza, popularly known as King James, former Miss Rwanda Aurore Kayibanda and reigning beauty queen Colombe Akiwacu.

The two women are captured standing on each side pecking King James on the cheeks.

This illustration, however, did not go down well with a section of the public, with claims that it portrayed the female models to have a character that the Rwandan culture frowns upon.

Airtel had managed to put up three billboards in the city. The commercial had only been in place for about 10 days.

Speaking to The New Times, yesterday, Airtel's Brand and Communication's manager John Magara, said there was no malice or provocation intended in the visual and the message interpreted was not the intended one. He admitted that there might have been a challenge in putting together the artwork.

He said they made the decision to bring down the commercials following an outcry on social media, and after deliberations with the Kigali City Council officials and other stakeholders.

"The purpose of the visual was to illustrate that a customer regardless of their gender gets two discounts. One is up to a hundred per cent bonus while the second is free night calls. The problem might have been the choice of execution, there was no desire or malicious intentions to provoke the public. We are a business and controversy doesn't benefit us in any way. The planned putting up of more billboards has since been stopped"

"When we were asked to pull it down, there was no hesitation and we are modifying the visual to a more appropriate one. We are a law abiding firm and ready to follow rules and regulations regarding advertisements and commercials."

Bruno Rangira, the spokesperson of Kigali City Council, told Saturday Times that prior to installation of the billboards in question, Airtel had not brought them up for vetting by the City which is in contravention of a city bylaw obliging advertisers to ensure that all outdoor advertisement material are vetted before they are put up."

The purpose of this, the city said, was to protect the public from indecent advertisements. The law provides for penalties in the form of fines for those who flaunt the law with the advertising agencies and billboard owners being culpable.

At the time the directive was announced, the bylaws had caused mixed reactions among a section of advertising agencies and marketers, with most of them saying it could breach confidentiality or water down the effects of the advertisements.

However, Airtel absolved themselves of wrongdoing, saying it was the agency's role to have the commercials vetted.

The chairperson of the Association of Rwanda Female Journalists (ARFEM), Faith Mbabazi, said the move to bring down the billboards was commendable as they were somewhat chauvinistic and portrayed women in bad light.

She said this was not the first time commercials had been gender insensitive and urged marketers to give more thought to their commercials.

"This should be an eye opener to marketers to ensure that what they disseminate to the public is gender sensitive. It would be good if other billboards and commercials that are gender insensitive are brought down too," Mbabazi said.

Rwanda based copywriter and designer who specialises in print commercials, Allan Odipo, said marketers and advertisers should consider society's norms and culture while coming up with advertisements and commercials to avoid controversies.

He, however, added that the regulators should allow firms to reach out to their clients creatively.

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