BY Valerie Steele in Profiles | 09 SEP 96
Featured in
Issue 30

Identity Parade

Diesel's marketing strategy

BY Valerie Steele in Profiles | 09 SEP 96

Today even small children are quite cynical about capitalism's promesse de bonheur, yet companies still spend a fortune on advertising, because no matter how savvy we think we are, we remain perversely enraptured by the spectacle of commodity fetishism. The press advertisements for Diesel Jeans and Workwear provide a striking example of this fetishism, and also of the contemporary politics of style. The result is a knowing kind of advertising that ironically references our nostalgia for the images and promises of a more primitive era.

The typical Diesel ad will feature several young and attractive models who are juxtaposed with banal, bizarre or grotesque images, such as 50s-style TV dinners, generals wearing nappies, or extremely obese men. Much of the imagery is new to the media, having seldom been featured outside of pornography, and is not unlike the kind of role-playing associated with sadomasochistic and fetishistic sexual scripts. In order to make these images more palatable to a mass audience, Diesel employs an overarching tone of heavy-handed humour and sarcasm, suggesting to the reader that these images are read as negatives: all the women wearing fur coats are in cages, so it must be an anti-fur message. Politics is satirised in the same way: one Diesel advertisement features the caption 'How to get stinking rich', followed by a facetious text that suggests founding your own religious cult. Such messages coupled with the campaign's explicitly multi-racial mix might imply a targeting of a politically progressive audience; a more cynical, feminist viewer might observe instead that a disproportionate number of Diesel's female models have long blonde hair and Barbie doll physiques - one girl actually dandles a Ken doll on her knee.

Advertisers know that sex sells. As with Calvin Klein's advertisements, the models for Diesel are not only young and attractive, but also come in all sexual persuasions. One Diesel ad, for example, shows two male sailors kissing passionately, alluding to the famous 1945 photograph of a nurse and a sailor kissing, as well as to the ACT UP poster, 'We're here, we're queer, get used to it'. One might also note that the cult of the uniform, so important in fetishistic role-play, is conspicuous in Diesel's imagery. What is especially interesting about Diesel, however, is the way its advertisements refuse to promise that sex is always idyllic. Whereas Klein's advertisements show only the body beautiful, in the world of Diesel the participants in any sexual encounter must be young and hip - or else sex is pathetic and disgusting.

By employing blatantly sexual imagery in a sarcastic way, Diesel creates a peculiarly ambiguous effect. An advertisement captioned 'How To Control Wild Animals' shows a woman in a black brassiere and unbuttoned jeans lying on a zebra skin. Is it sexist? Or is it ironic and subversive, even feminist? At a time when most American advertisers are afraid to offend anyone, it comes as something of a relief to see advertisements that play with sexual themes. But just as Calvin Klein got into trouble over his 'kiddy porn' advertisements, so a Diesel catalogue raises eyebrows with advertisements that feature sex and murder. 'The Autopsy revealed several deep, satisfying bite marks around the area of the co-ed's thighs...' began the text of one Diesel advertisement, from a series with captions like 'Vile Sex Players' and 'Steroid Freak and His Little Girl Victims'. Certainly, there is a plethora of films and novels about psycho serial killers, but it remains disconcerting to see Lustmord being used to sell jeans.

What sense can be made of such an advertising campaign? Critics argue that the power of the media to disseminate this type of imagery contributes to our self-alienation (although this may over-estimate the passivity of the viewer). I would argue that the Diesel advertisements seem, rather, in the words of Caroline Evans and Minna Thornton, to demonstrate that fashion is willing 'to deploy any and all available material', however bizarre or repulsive, in the 'search for both meanings and for novelty'. As they observe in their book Women and Fashion: A New Look (1989), 'Fashion has always peddled images to addicts', and in this the Diesel campaign is no exception.