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Corporate Legitimacy and Advertising: British Companies and the Rhetoric of Development in West Africa, 1950–1970

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 December 2011

Stephanie Decker
STEPHANIE DECKER is lecturer in International Business at the University of Liverpool Management School.


Development, modernity, and industrialization became dominant themes in corporate advertising in Africa in the 1950s and remained prevalent through the following two decades while many African nations were gaining independence. British businesses operating there created a publicity strategy that couched their presence in less developed countries in terms of a commitment and a positive contribution to the progress of the new states. Eventually, British companies tried to “Africanize” their corporate image through these campaigns.

Copyright © The President and Fellows of Harvard College 2007

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14 The idea that business has to justify its presence in society has been suggested in various different contexts. See Marchand, Roland, Creating the Corporate Soul: The Rise of Public Relations and Corporate Imagery in American Business (Berkeley, 1998), 747Google Scholar; Schwarzkopf, Stefan, “They Do It with Mirrors: Advertising and British Cold War Consumer Politics,” Contemporary British History 19 (2005): 137–43CrossRefGoogle Scholar; O'Brien, Timothy, “The Revolutionary Mission: American Enterprise in Cuba,” American Historical Review 98 (1993): 765–67, 781–84CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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17 Cooper and Packard, “Introduction,” 4, 12, 18, 30.

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19 This underscores that British companies in Africa increasingly Africanized their “shop front” and their management, and between the mid-1960s and the 1980s most firms had almost fully Africanized their top management cadres.

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21 Decker, “Building Up Goodwill?” 89–99, 109–16.

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24 For a short account of the foundation of the banks, see Fry, Richard, Bankers in West Africa: The History of the British Bank of West Africa (London, 1976), 23–29, 91–93,101–2Google Scholar.

25 Measured by the total number of branches in relation to population figures. See Newlyn, Walter, “The Colonial Empire,” in Banking in the Commonwealth, ed. Sayers, Richard (Oxford, 1952), 450Google Scholar.

26 The bankers' notion of creditworthiness nevertheless had racist undertones, as bankers assumed that Africans were stealing and lying (especially from Europeans) whenever possible. Whether this (mutual) distrust between Africans and Europeans really resulted in higher levels of fraud is unclear. Moreover, property rights in Africa could not always be passed on to Europeans. Especially with regard to land rights, the situation was complicated. Colonial governments made African-owned land in many parts of the colonies inalienable to foreigners, in order to prevent settlements and plantations. While this policy benefited independent African farmers, it made it difficult for local owners to mortgage their land or property to a foreign bank, since the bank could not take up the title. Hence, Africans had difficulty providing security for loans. On the nature of property rights, see Austin, Gareth, Land, Labour and Capital in Ghana: From Slavery to Free Labour in Asante, 1807–1956 (Rochester, N.Y., 2005), 443–45, 453–54Google Scholar.

27 Mobilizing savings and expanding financial institutions were presented as key features for take-off in Rostow, W. W., “The Take-off into Self-sustained Growth,” Economic Journal 66 (1956): 29–30, 38–40, 4647CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also W. Arthur Lewis, “Economic Development with Unlimited Supplies of Labour,” Manchester School (May 1954): 416. “Big-push” development economics were embraced by Nkrumah's government; and acceptance of these ideas was widespread. See Killick, Development Economics in Action, 17–20.

28 Larkin Studios featured heavily in a recent three-part documentary on the history of British animation shown on BBC3, Animation Nation, especially in the first part on advertising, “The Art of Persuasion.”

29 Barclays Bank DCO, Board Minutes, ledger vol. 9, 22 Mar. 1956, 38; 27 Sept. 1956, 129; BGA 38/511.

30 Hugh Norris, “A Little Family History, Part Three—My Own Story, Book Four: 1949–1984, “Overseas Banking,” 70, BGA 1083/1.

31 Norris, “Overseas Banking,” 70.

32 W. W. Milne, “General Report on Visit to West Africa,” 9 June 1946, 6, BGA 38/906; Bayart, Jean-Francois, The State in Africa: The Politics of the Belly (London, 1993), 242–43Google Scholar.

33 Holt, Douglas, How Brands Become Icons: The Principles of Cultural Branding (Boston, 2004), 610Google Scholar.

34 The particular importance of highlife music for anticolonial nationalism and postindependence nation building lay in the nontribal, yet specifically African, even pan-African, credentials of its heritage. See Collins, John, “A Social History of Ghanaian Popular Entertainment since Independence,” Transactions of the Historical Society of Ghana, n.s. 9 (2005): 1924Google Scholar.

35 Macdona, Brian, “Visit to Sierra Leone and Ghana, February-April 1958,” verbatim notes from dictaphone, 27, BGA 38/382 (4)Google Scholar (hereafter Macdona, “Visit to Sierra Leone and Ghana”).

36 Macdona, “Visit to Sierra Leone and Ghana,” 72.

37 Ibid., 27.

38 Richard Fleming and E. V. Whitcombe, “Nigeria and the Cameroons,” 23 July 1960, 19, BGA 80/3466.

39 Kaye Whiteman, “Obituary: David Williams,” Independent, 23 Sept. 1993; “David Williams,” Times, 17 Sept. 1993.

40 This is presumably in the late 1970s and early 1980s. See David Pallister, “Media: A Rift between Continents—David Pallister on a Power Struggle between London Editor and Lagos Bosses,” Guardian, 3 Sept. 1990.

41 Barclays, , “Accra,” West Africa, 9 Jan. 1960Google Scholar.

42 Barclays Bank Nigeria, “How Barclays Can Help to Protect Your Business Interest in Other Countries,” Management in Nigeria (Nov. 1976): 33.

43 For an influential criticism of advertising, see Galbraith, John Kenneth, The Affluent Society (London, 1974, 1st ed., 1958), 150–51Google Scholar; and Schwarzkopf, “They Do It with Mirrors,” 135–7. See also Trentmann, Frank, “Beyond Consumerism: New Historical Perspectives on Consumption,” Journal of Contemporary History 39 (2004): 376–81.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

44 Biersteker, Thomas, Multinationals, the State, and the Control of the Nigerian Economy (Princeton, 1987)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Akinsanya, Adeoye, Economic Independence and Indigenisation of Private Foreign Investments: The Experiences of Nigeria and Ghana (Columbia, S.C., 1982)Google Scholar.

45 Jones, Geoffrey, The Evolution of International Business: An Introduction (London, 1996), 293Google Scholar. Most expropriations occurred in Africa (52.1 percent), followed by Latin America (28.7 percent) and North Africa and the Middle East (25.9 percent) according to Kobrin for the time period 1960–79. British firms were also most likely to be expropriated in Africa (49 percent), but less likely than their peers to lose their investment in the Middle East (19 percent) or Latin America (8 percent). This might reflect different regional distribution. Internationally, the manufacturing sector was worst affected (26 percent), followed by petroleum (17.7 percent), mining and finance (12.1 percent), and agriculture (8.8 percent). Here, British experience diverged distinctly: extractive companies were most affected (30 percent), then finance (20 percent), followed by manufacturing (15 percent) and agriculture (13 percent). The United States' investment in Latin America probably explains why British companies were affected differently than the overall pattern suggests. For the international figures, see Kobrin, Stephen J., “Expropriation as an Attempt to Control Foreign Firms in LDCs,” International Studies Quarterly 28 (1984): 336CrossRefGoogle Scholar; for British companies, see Boyd, Fiona, “Expropriation of Alien Property in International Law: A Study of Recent State Practice Concerning British Nationals” (M. Phil, diss., University of Nottingham, 1988), 37, 43Google Scholar.

46 Nigeria had been founded in the late 1940s by a colonial education officer, originally as a private initiative. Its success prompted the Nigerian colonial government to take over the magazine as a quarterly publication on the arts and culture in Nigeria. As a state-owned venture, it was presumably taken over by the independent Nigerian state, but information on the subsequent fate of the magazine is patchy. Colonial Office, Colonial Annual Reports: Nigeria, 1947 (London, 1949), 7980Google Scholar.

47 Fieldhouse, Merchant Capital, 620, 718, 721, 762, 774; Jones, Geoffrey, Renewing Unilever (Oxford, 2005), 57, 79,197Google Scholar.

48 Tignor, Robert, “Decolonization and Business: The Case of Egypt,” Journal of Modern History 59 (1987): 479505CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Tignor, Robert, “The Suez Crisis of 1956 and Egypt's Foreign Private-Sector,” Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 20 (1992): 274–97CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Piquet, Caroline, “The Suez Company's Concession in Egypt, 1854–1956: Modern Infrastructure and Local Economic Development,” Enterprise & Society 5 (2004): 107–27Google Scholar. For Iran in the 1950s, see Jones, Geoffrey, Banking and Oil: The History of the British Bank of the Middle East, vol. 2 (Cambridge, 1987)Google Scholar. For Latin America, see Sigmund, Paul, Multinationals in Latin America: The Politics of Nationalization (Madison, Wise, 1980)Google Scholar.

49 In Ghana literacy rose from between 19 percent to 23 percent for males around 1950 to 43 percent for males and reached 17 percent for females in 1970. In Nigeria, English literacy was lower c.1950, between 10 and 15 percent, but it also rose to 31 percent for men and came to 10 percent for women in 1970. (The percentages refer to people age fifteen and over.) Jolly, Richard, Planning Education for African Development: Economic and Manpower Perspectives (Nairobi, 1969), 104Google Scholar, table IV-1; Cooper, Frederick, Africa since 1940: The Past of the Present (Cambridge, 2002), 114CrossRefGoogle Scholar, table 2.

50 Colonial Office, Report on the Gold Coast for the year 1954 (London, 1956), 104Google Scholar; and Report on Nigeria for the year 1954 (London, 1958), 188Google Scholar. Although Nigeria's western region was rural, it was also affluent and densely inhabited due to cocoa farming.

51 Collins, “A Social History,” 19. For an image from 1950, see Colonial Office, Colonial Reports: Gold Coast, 1950 (London, 1952)Google Scholar, between pp. 54 and 55. While there is no information on West Africa, in Zimbabwe these units showed ads before and after films. Burke, Timothy, Lifebuoy Men, Lux Women: Commodification, Consumption, and Cleanliness in Modern Zimbabwe (Durham, N.C., 1996), 141Google Scholar.

52 Macdona, “Visit to Sierra Leone and Ghana,” 27.

53 Assertive poses cannot be equated with a “decolonized” representation of Africans. Indigenous photography shows different poses from colonial imagery and corporate advertising. For an introduction to the debate, see Maxwell, Anne, Colonial Photography and Exhibitions: Representations of the “Native” People and the Makings of European Identities (London, 1999), 1314Google Scholar; and the criticism by Haney, Erin Leigh, “If These Walls Could Talk! Photographs, Photographers and Their Patrons in Accra and Cape Coast, Ghana, 1840–1940” (Ph.D. diss., School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 2004), 182213Google Scholar.

54 Of course there had been criticism of foreign multinationals before the 1970s, most notably Chief Awolowo's motion for nationalization in the Nigeria parliament in 1961. His party had already become the focus of foreign business criticism during decolonization. See Tignor, Capitalism and Nationalism at the End of Empire, 239–41.

55 Kennedy, Charles, “Relations between Transnational Corporations and Governments in Host Countries: A Look into the Future,” Transnational Corporations l (1992): 6791Google Scholar.

56 United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, World Investment Report 2003–FDI Policies for Development: National and International Perspectives (New York, 2003), 164Google Scholar.

57 Vincent Maphai, head of BHP Billiton, South Africa, quoted in Business in Africa: A Flicker of a Brighter Future,” Economist, 7 Sept. 2006, 81Google Scholar.

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