Fledgling Activists or Fashion Models?

"This is a wake up call for the rebel inside you. If you want to live a successful life, you have to fight for it. Join with us. Seize the day." You won't be finding an activist yelling this slogan in front of city hall, but you will find it in a magazine advertisement promoting Diesel jeans. Some say sex sells, but Diesel thinks activism will.

Grungy, punk-like models holding picket signs with messages like "More Green Traffic Lights" and "Plant More Flowers" are the focus of Diesel's print ads and website. Of course these "protesters" are clad in Diesel jeans, shoes, and accessories, but that is seemingly beside the point. The images camouflage the fact that they are indeed fashion advertisements by spotlighting mock issues like "Believe in #13" and "Free the Goldfish." While Diesel may argue that their advertisements promote youth action and organizing, real activists aren't buying it.

"[Diesel] ads make fun of activism ... and use it to sell their clothes. Honestly, there are probably people right now organizing against the child labor ... they use to make their jeans in the first place," Venus Rodriguez, an organizer at Youth of Oakland United, says half sarcastic and half serious. Diesel is no stranger to irony; the clothing maker has a long history of tongue-in-cheek advertising. In a description of its "Diesel - For Successful Living" campaign the company warns, "Diesel images ... must be interpreted very ironically: the standard of consumer 'success' found in most advertising is exaggerated and made absurd ... [A]ny suggestion of worthiness is undercut by a final admission that it's all just a joke."

But Diesel's current "Action! - For Successful Living" campaign covers new territory. A European marketing magazine reports that "the print campaign aims to encourage young people to take action, to express their emotions and to speak up and voice their opinions for a better life." However with messages like "Marry Young" and "Share Your Bath Water" Diesel's trademark satirical humor lives on. Some young activists aren't laughing.

"This is something that I do. I'm an activist and I'm an advocate," explains Belinda Bellinger, an intern and youth advocate at Youth Making A Change (Y-MAC). "It's disrespectful to me because [these images] are portraying who I am. [They suggest] that I don't believe in serious issues."

"With youth, [activism] has to be [about] something that relates to them for them to feel it and to want to take part in it.'"

The youth organizer is particularly concerned that young people won't take activism seriously after seeing the ads. "[The] #13 is not a real issue in the community," Belinda says, "with youth, [activism] has to be [about] something that relates to them for them to feel it and to want to take part in it."

Diesel is aware that the issues they promote are trite, but perhaps the company hopes that young consumers will see the images of people protesting and be inspired to take action on issues of real pertinence. Belinda is skeptical about the chance of this occurring. "The ads are dangerous," she says, "because [some young people] will see the Diesel signs and take it seriously." Belinda asks, "why not put real stuff that real people are fighting for on their signs? "

Carolina Salazar, a youth organizer for C-Beyond, agrees with Belinda. "The [Diesel ads] will have a negative effect on the organizing community," she predicts. "The ads make it look so real. I would be confused if I were a kid."

Carolina also points out certain stereotypes that the images perpetuate. "The media portrays young activists as hoodlums who don't know what they're talking about and are just trying to raise a ruckus," Carolina says. "The [Diesel ads] say kids don't care about anything, but 'sharing their bath water.'"

But what about the old adage: any publicity is good publicity? Carolina, like her counterparts, doesn't find the Diesel campaign to be beneficial to the youth movement in any way. On top of trivializing her work as an activist, she says the ads amount to nothing more than "a stereotypical way to present youth."

Diesel ads

Diesel's images of youth as lawless punks, Carolina explains, underscores the generalization that all young activists are mischievous rebels. The truth is that some young people do want to look rebellious, but that doesn't necessarily mean they don't believe in substantive issues. Ironically, while Diesel minimizes the voice of youth activism in its ads, the company exploits the one aspect of organized youth that probably concerns them the least: what they wear. The ads show how Diesel and other clothing makers often capitalize on punk style by making it a fashion trend.

According to Carolina, the Diesel slogan "The World Needs More Love Letters" emphasizes yet another stereotype. Often people assume that "our biggest concern [as a young adult] is having a boyfriend or girlfriend," she says. "These are not necessarily the biggest issues in our lives. These are not issues we would try to take to a legislator."

Carolina touches upon a major aspect of the campaign. Traditionally public protest is about issues that concern a community of people. The Diesel ads, however, put personal topics in a public setting by focusing on matters like marriage and romantic intimacy. In one ad, a young woman wraps with her arms and legs around a young man sitting in front of her. Smiling and gazing into each other's eyes, one holds up a sign that reads, "Kiss Your Neighbor." Instead of using sex to sell their clothes, Diesel uses activism about sexy topics to sell their clothes. While the advertising gimmick is eye-catching and provocative, Carolina is quick to point out that these messages belittle the efforts of young people who actually grasp a range of public concerns that effect much more than their personal lives.

As Carolina and other youth activists uncover the hollowness in Diesel's efforts to encourage youth action, the fashion company states on their website that "Diesel has become part of youth culture worldwide. It can legitimately claim to be the first brand to believe truly in the global village and to embrace it with open arms." Diesel attributes its connection to young people to its advertising, which began in 1991. The fashion company claims that their advertisements are "understood and appreciated by the public" as much as they are by advertisers.

Awards like "Advertiser of the Year" in the 1998 Cannes Film Festival demonstrate the kind of acclaim Diesel has received though the years. The company's ads have gained a cult following among advertisers and laymen alike. It seems that neither dedicated customers nor non-Diesel consumers can help but look at the subversive images when flipping through a magazine.

"Strategically they've moved on from self expression and anarchy to 'activism' but only on the surface.'"

But Rachel Gaunt of Underground Advertising is more apt to question Diesel's true motives than praise it for its innovative marketing. After reviewing Diesel's previous campaigns, Rachel concluded that their new ads send the same old message: be yourself but buy our clothes while you're at it. "Strategically they've moved on from self expression and anarchy to 'activism' but only on the surface," Rachel says.

What tipped Rachel off was the website's top-ten list of "Guidelines for Successful Protesting." For example, it ranks "wear the right clothes (no high heels or chicken suits)" as number two and "before you start shouting, use some mouthwash" as number five. "Even the tips for protesting are flippant and not really about serious organizing," Rachel says. Belinda of Y-MAC agrees. "Who cares if your breath is funky or not, you're trying to let some important messages be heard." The youth advocate asserts, "if you're worried about your breath, you're putting a revolution on hold."

Rachel stresses that Diesel has never been associated with social consciousness or true activism in the past and hasn't done anything differently to support their new image. "At worst this can be construed as simply a gimmick to get people's attention, sort of jumping on the socially conscious bandwagon with no credentials," Rachel explains. "At best there may be some genuine altruistic motive, but I for one am missing it."

Rachel is certainly not the only one "missing it." Venus of Youth of Oakland United can't quite seem to find the deeper meaning in the ads either, other than selling clothes of course. As Diesel ads are printed in magazines around the world, youth organizers are not expecting an upsurge in activism because of it. Activists like Venus have a long list of reasons for taking action that have nothing to do with designer jeans.

"For the past five years I have been organizing around homelessness, welfare rights, human rights, police brutality... the list goes on," Venus says. "I organize to unite my people. I organize because if I don't, who will? I organize to stand up for my rights ... I don't organize because it's trendy or because an ad tells me to."

Molly Kirk, 21, a recent UCLA graduate, is a proud native of San Francisco. While she admits to owning a pair of Diesel jeans, she has yet to feel particularly rebellious when sporting them.

Belinda Bellinger and Venus Rodriguez are also active members of the Youth Media Council (YMC). WireTap thanks YMC for their help with this story.

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