When I arrived in Kabul for the first time in January of 2009, I was struck by how interesting the city view was. A mix of old and new, with traffic of all kinds, everywhere, mostly sitting still, waiting for someone else to make the first move. As I moved through traffic in my car, I noticed a few street side advertisements, and a very few billboards. These billboards were either all oriented toward westerners, situated on routes between ISAF bases or their safe houses, and they advertised armored cars and contracting services or they were crude attempts by GIRoA or ISAF to “win hearts and minds” with fellow Kabulis or encourage good behavior.
I left Kabul to work in places further south; returning only in October of that year. As I was based in Kabul, around the end of 2009 and the beginning of 2010, I noticed something intensely interesting. A billboard advertising dried soup appeared near the Shah-Do Shamshira Mosque. This was remarkable in that it was obviously not targeted toward Westerners, but was designed to appeal to local Afghans, and not just the richest elites.
Advertisement for Appliances near the Continental Hotel
As 2010 progressed, More than just soup advertisements started to pop up. By the time 2011 rolled around, Kabul was an orgy of billboards, with everything under the sun being advertised. Food, consumer goods, phone and media services, banking, the arts, and especially schools were typical subject matter for billboards of all shapes, colors and sizes.
Milk and Bank billboards, side by side
The most sophisticated advertisement I saw on a billboard was for Homeshield, which is a product that does something to protect the exterior of one’s house. No clue what it is, other than what it says on the billboard.
Even hospitals advertise via billboards
Private school advertisement
Battle between sports drinks and soft drinks
From left to right: A theater production, a school and shoes
The Etisalat building, which is itself a billboard
The champion of billboards is Etisalat, however, which is a cell phone company, that is almost twice the cost of its competitors per minute. But everything that sat still for more than a few moments was plastered with an Etisalat advertisement. Or had a banner or billboard growing out of it.
Afghan Star, a reality TV show like American Idol
It was interesting to note that the rest of the country, and smaller population areas roughly mimicked this trend, lagging by about six months. In Kandahar, a minor armed conflict was fought between businessmen and the local politician/thugs in charge, over who owned the billboard trade, with the businessman who owned the most of them fleeing for his life in the end, and abandoning his billboards to the local political elite/thugs.
GIRoA billboard touting the benefits of literacy in cartoon style
Kabul Municipality celebration of the city’s ancient history
The GIRoA and ISAF billboards, however, had not advanced with the times. They remained monochromatic, crude and almost insulting in the patronizing way they spoke to the Afghan audience. They were almost like children’s books in their execution.
By the close of 2011, not only were the billboard advertisements saturating the market, but a change could be felt in the winds. The armored car advertisements were back. As were billboards for security companies. And these were in Dari, and were obviously aimed towards wealthy Afghans and the non-military expatriate, who would be left behind when the US and ISAF left in 2014. This was also accompanied with the bubble bursting in the overheated Kabul real estate market and a dramatic slowing of the construction industry in the Kabul area.
Return of the armored car billboards… sigh…
It is fascinating how the rise of the Kabul-area billboards tracked with the implementation of the surge, and the accompanying attempts to stabilize the country, and how this trend was reflected throughout the country in time delay. And how the uncertainty revolving around 2014 has caused the billboards to revert.