A Land Without Ads
How many images do you see everyday that sell you something?
They’re on your mobile, newsfeeds, Facebook, bus stops, trains and the backs of taxis. They flash above highways. They glow on elevator walls. They wink from shopping bags, vending machines, and the chip wrappers of people walking by. They flash above petrol pumps. You can’t even sit next to someone on a bench, without subliminally registering the logos they’re wearing.
In fact, it’s almost impossible to spend 24 hours in any western city without being visually assaulted by a Nike swoosh, glowing Apple, or Coca-Cola swirl, hungry for your dollar.
Just another night at Shibuya Crossing: Tokyo
Now imagine a city in which all those images have vanished. A place of logo-less buildings, ad-free streets, no brand clothes, and no web. Pyongyang is such a place. Instead of commercials on its bus stops, it has landscapes. Instead of Hollywood posters in its streets, it has propaganda art, with Farmers and Soldiers and Artists, raising pastel fists against the bright blue sky.
There are no billboards with half naked women selling perfume; no paparazzi snaps of stars with cellulite on crumpled magazines in the gutters. No MacDonald’s, no Sony, no Cadbury, no Murdoch. Instead, the country’s single daily newspaper is framed in glass stands, in train stations filled with Art. And in place of neons marking buildings as the property of IBM or BHP or ING, Pyongyang’s skyscrapers (there are many), have large red banners with bold white slogans, and beaming portraits of Kim Jong Il.
The result is total calm. Capitalism has been turned off. The visual noise is gone.
Well – not totally. There IS one ad in North Korea. It is a billboard commercial for a car called ‘The Hiparam’, which means ‘whistle’. According to our interpreter, The Hiparam is jointly built by workers from North and South Korea. It is named after the popular folk song that people dance and sing to in AIM HIGH!
It is strange that in a nation where most people ride bicycles, the only advertisement should be for a car. Perhaps this is because what’s actually being sold is not the vehicle, but the dream of Korean re-unification: which is something Koreans on both side of the border passionately long for.
One day, on our way back to the hotel after a long day’s shoot, I persuaded our driver to take us to the ad so we could film it. Here it is: ‘The Hiparam’: the only ad in North Korea: