More alternate history and power reversals (for reasons I’m at pains to explain, I seem to be on this kick lately), this time from the fashionistas at Diesel. Created by L’Oreal advertising agency in 2001 for the
overpriced famous denim company, the ad gained attention at the time for its provocative photos featuring the front page of a fictional newspaper, The Daily African. “Birthrate Booms in Italy and Spain,” one of them reads, “Europe Set Back Even Further;” the sub-headline continues: “With an average of 8.7 children born to every Italian woman and an annual GNP per capita below AFRO 45, there is a high risk of looming tragedy in southern Europe.” Another headline reads, “African hostages free after being held 148 days by Californian rebels,” while yet another proclaims “AU (African Union) agrees on financial aid to Europe.” Each daily is superimposed in white print against the backdrop of photos featuring African models, finely dressed (or in states of near undress) in various modes of play, lavishly indulging in decadent lifestyles of excess, while a poverty-stricken, politically unstable Third World Europe struggles to survive. Didactic enough for you?
The themes, like some final end-product of Steven Barnes Lion’s Blood, are hard to miss. In this bizarro world even the maps favor a global South perspective (flip a globe upside-down and you’ll see what’ I’m talking about), a completely alien view to our western eyes. Like all good speculative fiction, these tongue-in-cheek counterfactual photos attempt to tell us more about our own world than the fictional creation. If we find such images so startling when the global dynamics of race and power are reversed, do we find them equally as absurd and troubling as they actually exist? Or have these realities become so normal, that were it used as part of the ad campaign, we’d likely pass it by without a great deal of thought—like the oblivious cavorting Africans of the photos.
Then again, the photos may also allude to our usual depictions of Africa as one monolithic blighted basket case, where according to the few news stories we get, the world’s problems seem to fester unceasingly (seemingly without cause or origin–or at least none we care to examine). In the same way, The Daily African speaks of Europe in singular terms–rather than the diversity of peoples and countries we know exist there. Further, all we hear about Europe in these news headlines are tales of woe and misery. We have no idea if anything else happens in this alternate Europe–that people go about their daily lives, have hopes, dreams, are inventive, imaginative, resourceful and (quite important) are often more than capable of solving their OWN problems without the need of African saviors (who are too busy living lavishly to care at any rate). Sheds some key insight on our own realities that many have been trying to discuss for some time. Don’t know what I’m talking about? See author Binyavanga Wainaina’s satirical How to Write about Africa for a primer.
That’s not to say that Diesel’s attempts at displaying the global scale of wealth inequality through speculative imagery doesn’t bleed some of our reality’s problems into its own. There’s a need to advertise western wear, so for some reason we’re not made aware, western clothing is still the epitome of fashion in this African ascendant universe. There’s a degree of sexualization of African bodies that seems to mimic our familiar habits, though I suppose this is part of displaying decadence. And hey, at least they’re not in chains or cages (clicking that last link should disturb you). Most telling, the ad campaign continues to create the perception that the Third World (in this case Europe as stand in for Africa) suffers merely because we in the West continue to live decadent lifestyles and that if we just stopped for a moment and tried to help through some sort of self-congratulatory charity, things “over there” could be so much better. Of course, the truth is a lot more complicated.
Take for instance the misunderstood narrative of things like “aid.” A signficant amount of all US aid (at times up to 85 cents per dollar) comes back home, in the form of services and products recipient countries are required to purchase. Much more is expected from these same poor countries in return for such “aid” through structural adjustment policies, trade imbalances and product “dumping” (rice in Haiti; chicken in West Africa) that ruins local markets and funnels wealth back to the donor nations. I won’t even go into the grand extortion that is odious debt, as much of this “aid” takes the form of varied high-interest loans–where in Africa alone, repayment has funneled something like a staggering $700 billion back to western nations in the last four decades. Even the much touted benevolence of “debt reduction” is often nothing more often than a racket of profit-making re-financing. Point is, there’s a great deal more going on than is often discussed, including a serious level of culpability most of us seem hesitant to address. What better than speculative fiction to illuminate these issues in thought-provoking and imaginative ways? I’d say there’s a dire need to re-create ads along the lines of Diesel’s 2001 campaign for our day, that move beyond simplistic western “save Africa” crusades, and creates better understandings about the actual large-scale unfairness of our global economic and political realties.
Sure beats the cringe-worthy images of Gwyneth Paltro in “African-face” or the spectacle of
well-meaning right-wing-religious-funded-ministry condescension that is Kony2012. I’d like to personally request a video of an alternate-world African version of Sally Struthers, working for the Vodun Children’s Fund, bawling her eyes out as she pleads for aid to help save a poor European child, who we’ll call “Fred.”
View the full photo spread of the 2001 Diesel campaign by L’Oreal, here.