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Is Diesel Toxic? – Our protest at the Diesel Clothing Store

July 15th, 1998

Last weekend, About-Face created an “action” outside the Diesel clothing company’s new flagship store in San Francisco. I use the word action because, while we were protesting the company’s advertisements, it wasn’t a protest like you see on the news with people chanting and raising hand lettered signs in the air. We have two goals with any kind of consciousness raising that we do: to give input to a company about their advertising, and to plant seeds with individuals that they do have a say in the trends, images, ideas and politics that effect our culture.

Two weeks ago, someone brought the new Diesel clothing catalogue to our About-Face meeting. We highlight a lot of offensive advertising, but something about this highly-produced-but looks-like-it wasn’t catalogue made me think we should focus an “action” at them. The photos in the catalogue are every parent’s nightmare showing both girls and guys looking totally strung out with vacant looks in their eyes. They lounge about, hair in their faces, shoulders rounded with cigarettes burning in several of their hands. With their clothes hanging off and their eyelids heavy, even the young men are posed like street hustlers. I know, I live in a city where young runaways from all over the country really do sell their bodies for cash and drugs. This is what it looks like in the tenderloin after dark.

One shirtless kid kneels on a bed, his legs spread, his head tilted seductively, his hands down the front of his pants. No sooner do I utter these words and someone will be calling me an uptight prude, but there is something just plain scary about dressing teenagers up to look like they are high as kites and hustling sex on the street. Regardless of the realities of teen sex or drug usage, it is irresponsible to glamorize it especially to peddle product. And while we’re at it, what’s with the cigarettes?

Diesel is an Italian clothing company that prides itself on being hip. All over their website, they talk about what trend setters they are: From the very beginning, Diesel’s design team turned their backs on the style-dictators and consumer forecasters of the fashion establishment and let their own tastes lead them. I guess this is what you have to say on your own website, especially if you are trying to insinuate yourselves into the lives of a bunch of teenagers interested in being hip.

Their sales pitch started with an old “consumer products make better living” theme and was morphed into “Diesel – For Successful Living.” This is how they describe the campaign on their website: Diesel images of consumer paradise must however be interpreted very ironically: the standard promise of “success” found in most advertising is exaggerated and made absurd. Serious themes seem to be lurking everywhere in the advertising, but any suggestion of worthiness is undercut by a final admission that it’s all just a joke.

So the ads are ironic; just a joke. But what are we to do with the serious themes? Is it clear to the fifteen year old girl flipping through Spin or Rolling Stone magazines that the ads (and the serious themes within them) are just a joke? The even scarier question for me is whether the fifteen year old boys get the irony. Or do they get another not so subtle message that the sexuality of heavy-lidded, scantily clad girls is their entitlement?

Even though I think the hidden and not so hidden themes of popular images are often very serious, our tact at About-Face is always to use humor and a lighter presentation tone to educate people and plant some seeds of insurrection. I blew up several of Diesel’s ads and we mounted them on large sheets of foam board under headlines that said “Diesel Overdose – Are these images hazardous to your health?” or “In Diesel or Indecent?” We prepared a handout and wrote a letter to Diesel for people to sign if they cared to.

We are about the most benign looking bunch of protesters you’ve ever seen; fresh-faced, smiling, making people laugh. “Sign our letter to Diesel encouraging them to use a little more originality in their ads,” we’d yell to passers by. “Dead girls and drugged kids are so passe!” we’d call referring to some of the enlarged ads on our boards. There were eleven of us ranging in age from 19-45. We don’t take an in-your-face approach. Our goal is to start a dialogue about the subject of corporate influence on us,to encourage the public to be more media literate, to recognize the motivations behind the seductive images. We sometimes just plant the first seed with people and even when they have argued with us they still go off having heard a different point of view‚and that sometimes grows into a whole new awareness.

Many people stopped and many of them were in complete agreement‚during our four hours on the sidewalk, we got 270 signatures on our letter. But the number of names we send to Diesel is only one small piece of the equation. We are most interested in reminding all those people that drove and walked by us the other day that they do have a say.

I am amazed at the amount of apathy out there; the number of people that said “it doesn’t make any difference what we say or do” or “you can’t change advertising, they’re going to do whatever sells.” Most people recognized that advertisers would do whatever they could to get our attention but what surprised me is that so many people were resigned to it and even defended the right of companies to do it. It didn’t seem to occur to the people arguing with us that companies get to choose how they appeal to us and still sell their products. Just as Oprah decided to take the high road with her show topics, so can Diesel or Bebe or any other company decide they want to inspire young people rather than depict them as wasted, hardened street kids (in $110 dollar jeans.)

I am surprised that people write off advertising tactics as a given. Like all’s fair in love and free enterprise? “They have to get our attention” several people told us. So what? So anything goes? Advertisers can use any means they want to get our attention because after all they just want to sell their wares? Yeah, kids have sex, do drugs, some kids carry guns too ’cause they think it’s cool. Is it okay, just for the cameras, for the illusion, to tuck a little handgun in those low slung jeans? Is there a line that advertisers shouldn’t cross?

I think it’s a shame that our society has become so devoid of anything meaningful. I think it’s a shame that we Americans have become so superficial, competitive, greedy, petty, litigious, racist, consumeristic, and arrogant as hell. There was a time when people gave a lot of money to their churches. I am not saying that’s the solution (I’m an atheist myself) but my guess is that those people got something back in the form of community or a spiritual connection. Ultimately, I think consumerism makes us feel empty. What do we get back?

One of the women in our group had been in a fight with her boyfriend before she came to the protest. He understands the problem we are fighting, but strongly disagrees with our method of addressing it. I began to think about this and I came to this conclusion: in a time of such incredible apathy, we should be encouraging and indeed proud of each other for caring enough about an issue, any issue, to do something to make it better. We may choose different issues and we may approach them in different ways, but the important thing is to do something!

Occasionally, someone sends me an email via the website telling me to get a life and suggesting that there are more important things to fight against, say world hunger, a cleaner environment or illiteracy for instance. I completely agree that there are a bazillion causes that need people’s time, energy and money‚and there are several more I’d like to tackle myself, but ultimately it is the cause that picks us. It moves us to action for whatever reason. We take it on because we can no longer stand to sit idly by. It could be a little thing or it could be a big thing. It could be a big thing that someone else perceives to be a little thing.

In my opinion, the issues that About-Face addresses are huge. I believe it is absolutely critical that we begin to make the link between the images and messages of our time and the way they reflect the existing, and encourage the continuation of, major power imbalances in our society not the least of which is the incredible control corporations have over what we see, hear, desire, think. Pop culture as illustrated in the grand, slick imagery of entertainment, televised sports and advertising is sucking the life out of us. Personally I think what’s happening in our society would make for a great science fiction movie. Forget Orwell’s 1984, our own consumerism will be our downfall for a people that seeks to acquire more stuff above all else does so at the expense of its social conscience. And I think in our case, already has.

Unlike the men that write me to suggest that there are better ways I can fill my time, I am less concerned with which bandwagon people are jumping onto than I am about the people who just don’t seem to give a damn about anything. Or those that complain about the state of any number of things and then never get off their asses (or open their wallets) to change things. I may have an unnaturally optimistic view on our ability to fix, improve and change things, but I am blown away by the lack of initiative or sense of community connection of the average American. (And yes, I do think it’s a distinctly American trait.)

We are so mistrustful of each other and not nearly skeptical enough of the large companies influencing our lives. When you feel a tug to buy something or see a seductive print ad, it does not make you a radical or a socialist to ask yourself this question: “Who benefits?” I have a brand new bumper sticker that says: If you aren’t outraged, you aren’t paying attention. As far as I’m concerned, that about says it all.


Kathy Bruin is getting less and less afraid to say what she thinks.