Abstract: The African Native Is a Keen Buyer: Advertising, Market Research, and Imagining Consumers in Ghana, 1930-1960

Bianca A. Murillo


Beginning in the 1930s, British trading firms in West Africa began a process of imagining their African consumers. Firms such as United Africa Company (UAC) grew increasingly interested in understanding what they termed as the "African mind." In order to gain knowledge about local consumption practices, UAC undertook large-scale marketing research projects and began testing advertising styles on their own African employees. In addition, the company developed new selling techniques, such as offering special promotions, sending out propaganda vans, and hiring teams of product demonstrators. To date, historical research on advertising has been dominated by a focus on Britain, Europe, and the United States. This literature argues that advertisements reflected social fantasies and that methods used to market consumer goods encouraged not simply the buying of individual products, but changes in lifestyles. Within the past ten years, scholars of areas considered the "non-West" have contributed to this discussion and shed light on the history of colonialism, the activities of multinationals, and the role of globalization in shaping local consumer choices. Drawing upon UAC company records, the local press, and oral interviews, this paper explores how the relationships among UAC, its African employees, and its everyday customers shaped local consumption practices. In addition, this paper turns the question "How did UAC imagine Ghanaian consumers?" upside down, and asks, "How did Ghanaians imagine UAC?" I argue that the multiple and often contradictory ways that local people have imagined these large foreign trading firms in their everyday lives has played a large role in the social and cultural meanings attributed to goods and gives us a