How do you feel when you look at these images?
Are you shocked?
Do they justify your moral outrage? Do you take a moment to reflect on where and how you spend your own money? How does this ad affect you and why?
Study your reaction.
“Wait—what’s wrong with this picture?” was my first thought, of course. But as my synapses began firing, I felt a kind of glee.
“At last! Someone finally understands what’s wrong with the world and designed an ad campaign to promote self-reflection and personal responsibility!”
I read the long bones of the beautiful, starving African woman, translate the harsh slant of the sun in her eyes, decode the sensation of hot pebbles and dust against her dark, bare arm and transcribe the absurdity of the designer handbag—its white leather, like the hide of a white man’s burden—into this conviction: one person’s poverty is the sum of another person’s greed.
And then I continued to scroll down through my newsfeed and turn on the air-conditioner while I think about what to make for lunch. What happened?
The Kübler-Ross Model
Elizabeth Kübler-Ross popularized the five stages of grief in her book, On Death and Dying, which was inspired by her work with terminally ill patients: 1. Denial: This can’t be happening; 2. Anger: It’s not fair, who’s to blame?; 3. Bargaining: I’ll do anything to stop this, 4. Depression: I’m so sad, why bother and 5. Acceptance: I can’t fight it.
The trajectory of defeat is surprisingly similar.
Buying the Image We Want to See in the Mirror
Angelina Jolie is not only sexy, beautiful, rich and famous, she is also the Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Her celebrity draws a lot of attention to her many worthy causes.
And here is Angelina modeling a Louis Vuitton bag in picturesque Cambodia where, according to UN sources, 40 percent of its population lives below the poverty line, following years of terrorism, civil war and government corruption.
Decoding this ad isn’t simple.
Jolie has special ties to Cambodia because it was there that she filmed Lara Croft: Tomb Raider; adopted her son Maddox from an orphanage and as Goodwill Ambassador, raised awareness about landmines. Her modeling fees for this ad were donated to charity.
But there’s more.
This ad is part of Vuitton’s Core Values campaign (Bono in his trademark sunglasses and his wife Ali, are also featured in one of these ads, hopping out of a plane into the African bush slinging Vuitton overnight bags with a guitar case).
What are the core values Vuitton aims to promote? The central theme, according to Vuitton’s Marketing and Communications VP, is “travel as both a physical and emotional journey.”
So, is the Vuitton ad about the spiritual and metaphysical value of travel? Is it about supporting charity? Is it about selling an image of how we wish to be viewed? Or…is it about selling bags?
My 15-year old son’s reaction to the ad was, “I don’t like it. I mean, I guess it’s for a good cause but they’re just using that woman. It’s wrong.”
Who is the real woman in that ad? Is she dressed up as a poor African woman or is she a poor African woman?
And how would a real poor African woman feel about being used for this ad?
The ad with the African woman with the handbag and sunglasses, the ad of the African man holding a beer and aftershave, were designed for Cordaid, a Dutch relief and development agency that fights poverty internationally.
The Lovemarks Company designed the ad, as well as ads for Fiat, Pampers, Samsung, Jeep, Max Factor, Enfamil and Hallmark.
Google Translate doesn’t do justice to Lovemarks’ mission statement, but here it is:
We Love To Build Marks
Brands that become an essential part of someone’s life. We do this using the theory of Lovemarks, our global CEO Kevin Roberts. A theory arose from the fact that brands and products are becoming more alike. We want to help make a difference and growth. By emotional value to these brands to add. Why emotion? Because emotion impetus to action. And because there is no stronger emotion than love, we do so with Lovemarks. For a relationship based on true love, a relationship that sustains…
This is how propaganda works, this is how lawyers on both sides try their cases and this is how politicians on both sides get votes.
And this is how we are manipulated—we are at the mercy of our emotions.
I have become suspicious of my own dark assumptions. Would I have been less moved by the ad if the woman with the white handbag had been lying on a cardboard box on a filthy New York street?
Or if she was Caucasian?
Because I don’t buy expensive handbags, is my conscience clear? If I contribute the cost of the handbag to charity, am I free to shop?
Who do I want to be and how do I determine my responsibility to others? Will I live up to the values of the person I want to be?
Do we buy into an ad (or a politician or a popular ideology) because we really believe it or simply because we want an easy answer to questions that we are afraid to answer…or to even ask?
A Buddhist Marketing Model
After Siddhartha Gautama (aka Buddha) died, hundreds of years passed before any of his ideas were written down. Today, the number of Buddhists worldwide is between 1.2 to 1.6 billion, which ranks it near Christianity and Islam, the world’s two largest religions.
Buddhism, which is usually considered more of a philosophy rather than a religion, survived without mass media because people talked. Eventually, Buddhist texts were compiled but (like the Bible), none of the writings are firsthand.
No surprise, then, that it took a long time for Buddhism to spread to the West—Buddhism isn’t known for its evangelicals.
What is inherently attractive about Buddhism is that no persuasion is involved; we are not really asked to believe in anything at all.
We are, however, asked to follow the Buddha’s advice and test ideas for ourselves, so that we can see for ourselves. And this, my friends, is what I’m driving at, what I’m trying to push on you.
The next time you look at an ad or listen to a politician (whether you love or loathe him/her) or read an article…assume nothing.
Charlotte Heckscher strives for mindfulness, struggles with meditation and finds herself preoccupied with concepts of self, body image, relationships and honesty. She writes essays and creative nonfiction about what interests her on her blog, The Daily Procrastinator.
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Editor: Bryonie Wise