Silly Advertising: Diesel’s Irresponsible Anti-Intellectualism

It’s a no brainer... in every sense.  Diesel’s current campaign, “Be Stupid.” proves that a company can in fact be all that it promises.

It is, in a way, refreshingly shocking to see such honesty in advertising, but don’t be fooled, albeit disturbing, this is merely another upsetting instance of a company bending truth, remolding it to suit their need, i.e. sell products.  Rest assured that the Diesel people spent huge sums of money on developing this campaign, armed with top notch advertising and market research people; it’s all about creating a buzz!  And it works; people react to big bold ‘stupids’, they barely care for 'smarts'—all part of our obsession towards The Spectacle.   As a friend, Paul A. Toth, pointed out: “It was obviously intended to be so blatant that it would attract comments from people like us...  And to an extent, I feel like I'm feeding the beast by blogging about it.”  Ditto.  And although I hate to do so for that very reason, I nonetheless feel that some negative attention needs to be given to this campaign; this is evil propaganda at its worst.
That said, I hope you can appreciate that I refuse to post their link here on my blog, but all one has to do is type ‘Diesel’ and ‘stupid’ in any search engine...  

Given our current financial times—the doom and gloom of the global credit crunch—it’s no surprise that retail operations are suffering setbacks, hard times, and plain ol’ bankruptcy.  Stores that sell obscenely-priced ‘luxury’ goods are seeing a good part of their market reconsidering their need for such “stupid”, narcissistic items.  Hard to justify spending in excess of $300 for $40 jeans when half of your expected-pension suddenly vanished and a majority of your stocks are worth more as toilet paper.  And anyhow, your kids should be your priority, and after dressing them in the required-by-peer-pressure Diesel-Kids you’ve only got enough money left to buy yourself one pair of Diesel socks...

Despite repeated attempts by our financial markets to impart lessons and wisdom upon us, we once again chose to remain blind as we turned the page on a new millennium, our hope-filled, dream-fed  ‘new start’ losing all glitter, quickly fizzing out before the decade could be spent.
So, once again, after a few brief years of 80’s reminiscent attitudes of over-abundance, self-indulgence, and the triumph of synthetic over the natural, we once more find ourselves experiencing yet another economic recession marked by yet another strong desire to return to a state of equilibrium.  Whether we want it or not, very few can, literally, afford to toss caution to the wind in quite the same way that the boomer generation could for so long.  Reasonable and sensible aren't “in”, our institutions have made these a “must”.
Globalization, overseas out-sourcing, the environment, the rising cost of grain, the list is long, the causes interweaving and complex, but loud are the alarms signalling a new dawn of unpredictable instability; from education to labour to retirement, nothing is sacred, guaranteed or protected.  The equations of yesteryear no longer apply: one should now start investing for one’s retirement before one is even a part of the workforce; one can no longer expect that a company will take care of them in return for years of loyal service—a career lasts, on average, 6.5 years; heavy debt-load isn’t just a part of “starting out in life”, it’s a part of life, always; graduate studies may end up costing you a lot more than their potential, long-term payoff; saying blue-chip investments is now an oxymoron;  kids are no longer our future, they’re yesterday’s profit margin and today’s borrowed equity... You get the gist.  

The reality is there: the middle-class, though not, in my opinion, disappearing, is finding itself being redefined and repositioned in respect to a broadening lower-class and a strangely morphing anti-upper-class upper-class; this is a world-wide phenomena.  As many absorb increasing variants of lower-class woes, a new class of overnight millionaires are popping up all over the globe...   And Diesel’s ability to capitalise on these too-much-too-easily-too-soon types is what has kept them thriving, setting their collection of used-looking casual wear—the kind of clothes one would expect to find in a thrift store—in the same competitive league as all the well-known and lasting couture brands.  Essentially, they’ve managed to become an internationally recognized and accessible status symbol.    

However, here’s the conundrum: the rich may have been responsible for establishing Diesel’s reputation in the company’s younger years, but their numbers and ‘tastes’ can’t sustain the pre-credit-bubble-burst expanse Diesel had taken.  And without credit, who can afford to drop several thousands for a new wardrobe?  But the really wealthy (i.e. people for whom a $7000 dress merely represents the interest made while they stirred their coffee) don’t care at all for brands in the same way that the middle-class does.  The really rich don’t “buy” into the American dream, they “live” the American dream. They buy the best, and outward labels aren’t a necessity; their ‘friends’ will know, don’t worry.  It’s about exclusivity.  And with their logo now available on a whole slew of products ranging from clothes to perfume to jewelry to home decor and cars too, all sold in over 5000 retail outlets in over 80 countries, Diesel isn’t all that exclusive anymore, nor can it be as high-quality—that kind of operation entails the implementation of low-cost large-output manufacturing techniques (indeed, most of Diesel's clothes are now made in, you guessed it: China!  And at a fraction of retail prices).  As a consequence, and albeit the outrageous prices, a brand like the one Diesel has become is entirely dependent on middle class insecurities to achieve and maintain the types of sales growth it has achieved in the last 15 years; last year the company grossed $766 million, slightly less than the $802.8 reported in 2008.  Trends are predicted to continue.  
This new campaign is clearly the company acting on this reality.  After all, spending the equivalent of most people’s  monthly rent or mortgage payment on one piece of clothing is only stupid if spending that kind of money implies financial planning and worrying.  Well, recent events were a nice slap-in-the-face reminder that that implies all but a very thin slice of the stratification pie.  Nearly everyone, especially the middle-class, is worried about their personal finances these days.
Is it a good time to bring up Jimmy Carter’s 1979 Malaise Speech?   Here’s a relevant portion: “too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We've learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”  Hard to believe that was 40 years ago.  But back then this was a warning; today, we're living the consequences. 

If the current economic and social atmosphere is forcing members of Diesel’s key-market group to become increasingly cognizant of the fact that buying such products is senselessly stupid, Diesel figured that any attempts to counter these forces is wasted energy.  And if, in the immortal words of Forest Gump, “Stupid is what stupid does,”  then the Diesel folks took it upon themselves to redefine ‘stupid’ for us.
This is the part that I find incredibly despicable and insulting: rather than attempt to adjust to this shift and this new reality, Diesel is pretentious enough to give us all a big, "f*ck you, we won't change! Instead, we'll tell you what you are and we'll fool you into believing that it's a good thing by redefining stupid for you, since, after all, you're stupid enough to believe us, we've already sold you tons of merchandise!"
They really don't think too highly of their potential and actual customers, do they?  The truth is simple: Diesel and all these similar brands rely on two things: stupidity and insecurity; it's their lifeblood.  Because of these, people who can't really afford such products are nonetheless willing to put themselves in debt for "stupid" reasons.  But 'stupid' is also the attitude that brought us to a time where we're willing to be sold a shiny new and pleasing concept of 'stupid'.  Indeed, stupid is what stupid does.
For those who haven't seen the advert's accompanying texts and video (should we call that, "legal department imposed supplemental material"?), here is Diesel's campaign in a nutshell:
Stupid is good.  Smart is bad.
Stupid is unique.  Smart is humdrum.
Stupid is the new rebellion.  Smart is authority.

Their ad bombards us with the idea that 'stupid' is "wild, passionate, unreasoned actions made from the heart," i.e. pleasing one's self with an impulsive, unjustifiably expensive purchase, and that 'smart' is boring, predictable, devoid of life and essence; smart is conformity, especially to oppressive kill-joy authority figures (i.e. what we usually expect of the “stupid” masses).
Stupid is about succumbing to false needs and wants, even if this means finding yourself on anti-depressants... 
Yes, let’s celebrate obsessive, debt-inducing, vapid behaviour.  Let's encourage self-serving, living-for-the-moment moments despite any consequences. And let's be proud to call ourselves stupid for a company that embodies all that is wrong with the world we currently live in.

What's next?  New definitions for slut, thief, and murderer?  Wake up!  Other companies and governments are already working on those.

Try as they may, 'stupid’ will never become synonymous with ‘cool’ and ‘freedom’; at least not with smart people.  Stupid is a perfectly good word to describe stupid behaviour... behaviour like, for example, holding a sign that says "carrots" in an attempt to convince people that potatoes taste like turnips.    
And paying that kind of money on clothes, for nearly all of us, should still and always be seen as an act of stupidity, but stupid as in:  1. Slow to learn or understand; obtuse. 2. Tending to make poor decisions or careless mistakes.

Keep on clicking!

Image (above):  The Transparent Wall of the Spectacle: Be Stupid by Paul A. Toth; digital collage based on Diesel's "Be Stupid" web campaign.   

Side note: I’d like to call attention to the way the B was placed above the P (in Diesel's ad, top of post) as if to suggest BP Stupid.  Coincidence given the Deepwater Horizon disaster and Diesel’s release of their revamped Fiat 500 cars in the UK? 

© 2010, Pascal-Denis Lussier


Anonymous said...

"Stupid is the new rebellion. Smart is authority."

That's it. I couldn't get at a textual explanation of this ad campaign; it surpassed my intellectual capacity, and perhaps that's the point. You've done a good job of capturing what I would have said, had I been able to parse the ad campaign. Then again, I think the ad campaign is not only entitled "Be Stupid" but is intentionally stupid in and of itself. It bypasses rationality. I would gamble that the techniques of porn played a major part in the campaign's engineering. It forces the viewer into the mindset of a sex addict: everything reminds you of sex. Meanwhile, the *apparently* random words that appear on the site were obviously carefully chosen; they seem to suggest a meaning, yet the campaign lacks any meaning. I would say this ad points to the future of advertising altogether, a sort of hyper-postmodernism, in which the created or manufactured result is not deconstructed but rather the viewer.

Pascal-Denis Lussier said...

Thanks... but I felt I barely scratched the surface. Much to be said here in regards to semiotics, loss of identity, materialism, and so forth; many aspects that I barely mention if at all. This is a pretty bold, gutsy campaign that plays on so many levels, as you suggest. The Spectacle is def. at play here in the way "it bypasses rationality"; i agree with that. I think I'm not really seeing the sex in the same way you do though.
But, beyond the obscured obvious, in every other respect it's a reversed version of reverse-psychology and so I'm also having a difficult time discussing the many aspects lest I do a five-part piece on this ad alone, methodically working my way through each level. The methods employed need to be understood in-depth to grasp just how vile this campaign is, but understanding all that requires a good understanding of the various sociological factors at play. In other words, this is such a simple yet utterly complex ad that I barely know where to begin, and making sense of it all is to award this ad with way more time than it deserves... yes and no. It is mystifying!
Tried to capture it all in one relatively brief post by offering more context than criticism... does it work? Not one of my better/stronger pieces. I may do a rewrite...

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