Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Thursday, 3 July 2014

In Attaining the Dream

Unilever, the multinational manufacturer of consumer goods launched a series of advertisements for some of its most well known products over the past six months which have stood out amongst traditional marketing practices. Advertisements seek to associate positive values such as generosity, taste and intelligence with a product, making it more attractive in the eye of the consumer and desirable to be associated with. The recent advertisements by Unilever have reached the zenith of this concept, mixing the infinitely virtuous, the inherently beautiful and perpetually illusive concept of global unity with a swathe of consumer goods in a brazen and unashamed way.

Aimed at all demographic groups and age-ranges, the products featured include antiperspirant, body-creams and domestic cleaning products; thereby targeting men, women and families. This takes place during the emergence of the concept of "good" products, those meant for solving the challenges of human existence: resolving the crisis of loneliness and need for a partner, the establishment of self-worth and the fulfilment of dignity along with the achievement of global equality. This new generation of advertisements extol the immodest aim of not just fulfilling the personal desires of the consumer, but the facilitation of positive development on behalf of humanity. And this is the most troubling thing about these advertisements: it is this sheer, unparalleled display of self-aggrandisation that presents the greatest difficulties with these adverts.

The ad ties three strands of unexpected romance together, with a montage of scenes building towards an expected flurry of violence; the climactic moment instead turns to a romantic embrace or supposed display of love between military or political leaders and their partners. The ad ends with a brief clip of a supposed military leader being sprayed down with Lynx. The attempt at soft humour draws on the viewer's knowledge and expectations of unnamed conflict zones, such as places resembling Eastern Europe and Vietnam as well as political figures from the Middle East and an Asian military-state that resemble Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Kim Jong-un.

The failings of the advert stem from its intended source of comedy, that expectations of violence are replaced with scenes of tenderness. Unfortunately, those at the butt of the joke are the victims of gross atrocities. There are visual cues in the ad that refer to a location during the Soviet era: large uniform tower blocks, wrecked Ladas, and the heavily accented "Mikhail" from the woman. The soldier emerging from the tank is in uniform, and so the fleeing refugees in the scene would appear to be afraid of this approaching column of troops. The combination of visual cues would suggest that the directors hoped to make reference to the invasion of Chechnya by Russia during the Second Chechen War (1999-2000).

In the late 90's, Russian forces attacked the region in an  in an attempt to demolish rising separatist forces. In doing so, refugees were targeted by Russian artillery and air-strikes as they fled combat zones, the population of Grozny was issued with an ultimatum of "leave or die" and a campaign of arbitrary detainment, torture and summary executions took place during and after the conflict. The use of force by the Russian military was condemned internationally as excessive and indiscriminate and left the city of Grozny in ruins after the war.

The advert continues, and goes on to depict the build up to an aerial assault on a Vietnamese village by US troops. Evidence for this would be the American helicopters, a soldier in US uniform and the brief clip of him  emerging from a helicopter as he shoulders an M16. In the context of this advert, this is a reference to the Mai Lai massacre where over three hundred people were murdered by US soldiers. The full report from the 1970 Peers Inquiry into the massacre is available here. Included is testimony from soldiers present during the killings.

The advert also shows a military parade in a place resembling North Korea, a nation with one of the world's worst records of human rights abuse. The scene depicts a leader, dressed in military regalia, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with his wife as he surveys an assembled crowd of soldiers and military equipment. As the military staff stand to attention, a road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile passes before the leader and the crowd turn over their cards to reveal a "cute" image of love and affection.

The United Nations reported earlier this year about the human rights situation in North Korea, decrying the government's systemic approach to torture, forced disappearances and horrific labour camp conditions. Ordinary life in the pariah state is extremely challenging, with ordinary people under constant fear of persecution. The North Korean government continues to focus funding into its nuclear weapons programme despite international trade embargoes and the detriment of its citizens, who face food shortages and are at yearly famine risk. Some of these issues were previously reported on by Skríobh here.

The underlying philosophy of Lynx's marketing campaign is that there's a divide between the genders and through the use of their product, the consumer can take advantage of that inequality. Research carried out in the field of gender and conflict suggests that societies that have a higher level of inequality face a higher risk of civil war and the effects of that civil war will be worse for women. The marketing team also appear to have forgotten that gender-based-violence is often perpetuated in conflict zones, with sexual assault and rape being inflicted upon vulnerable groups such as refugees and prisoners. Lynx seems satisfied with the continuation of the gender divide and their marketing reflects a heedless approach to the subject-matter portrayed in their advertising.

The short clip falls into a distinct genre of advertising, where the ethical validity of the advert is glossed over in an act of purposeful mental disengagement with reality. Glib marketing that fictionalises atrocities generates a disconnect between consumers and violence. This pandering to the lowest level of the market is damaging to groups in society, perpetuating the view that violence is for the poor and vulnerable and needn't be the concern of the modern viewer. This advert is the continuation of Lynx spreading a harmful message that gender gives entitlement and does so through fallacious and inconsiderate marketing. In the build up to the International Day of Peace initiative led by the UN, the imagery and concepts used by Unilever appear self-serving, materialistic and insensitive and are antagonistic to the work carried out in the name of the improvement of society.