Here is an essay I did during my final year which I found really interesting, the question was;
“With explicit reference to ideology, critically evaluate the extent to which the recent Diesel ‘Be Stupid’ campaign attempts to shape or mirror its target audience.”
…see what you think?
To introduce, this essay will critically evaluate the discussion as to whether the Diesel campaign “Be Stupid” indeed shapes or mirrors its target audience, with explicit reference to ideology. Initially this essay will explore the implicit intentions behind Be:Stupid and evaluate the methods that appear to have been used. Those methods such as narrative, stereotyping, commodity fetishism and reification will be discussed as to whether they assist Diesel in shaping or mirroring its audiences with close reference to ideology.
Firstly in order to critically evaluate this campaign, it is important to learn about what Diesel is in fact offering its audiences as a brand and also exploring into their exclamation to ‘be stupid’.
Diesel uses storytelling or narrative as a method to relate the images to the philosophy ‘Be Stupid’ within this campaign’s advertising strategy. Cobley (2001:4) quotes Appleseed from a Sunday Times article (1999) of storytelling within the context of everyday lives.
“We tell stories to ourselves; of our journey from birth to death, friends, families, who we are and who we want to be…they console us make our lives meaningful by placing us in something bigger than ourselves.”
Organised stories seem intrinsic to the “fabric of everyday existence” says (Forester, 1962) cited Cobley (2001.) It would appear that stories are as much a part of everyday human life as advertising is, and so it is not a coincidence that advertising uses them to their advantage. Telling stories requires a collective audience where everyone will then understand what is communicated quickly and easily. Diesel tells stories of a way of ‘life’ and has been told, in a way so that it appears attractive and aspirational to their target audiences.
However it could be argued that narrative is more likely the method Diesel has employed here,not storytelling as according to Cobley (2001) “narrative is different from ‘story’ or ‘plot’.” Narrative, he says, “is the showing or the telling of these events and the mode or vehicle for which that takes place,” in this case that vehicle is advertising.
Regarding the argument in debate, narrative chooses which elements it wishes to show and tell creating a strongly crafted message, essentially like all advertising. Controlling what elements are to be in and out of adverts could be said as attempting to shape audiences as their true reflection is not being clearly presented. It is what is being re-presented (Cobley, 2001) “which allows some things to be depicted and not others.” The notion of Diesel re-presenting images and retelling narratives of ‘stupid’, is creating a pop culture which its collective audience can recognise.
The advantage for Diesel is that narrative is often taken for granted or appears to be ‘naturalised’. Narrative is simply a sign that is portrayed within a meaningful sequence which audiences attribute meaning to. Regarding ‘Be Stupid’ Diesel has created a narrative to get its audiences to look at ‘stupid’ in a different way, by representing it as an aspirational marker using signification. Therefore advertising mythologises certain narratives to an almost folkloric status, Diesel’s version of stupid will never replace the actual adjective in terms of traits; but their advertising will maintain the myth to validate to their audience and themselves what Diesel has to offer. However regarding myths, the appeal to audiences is epistemological and so they see themselves in the narrative and stories told. This would support an argument that Diesel is mirroring audiences, including them in the narrative. An example from the campaign would be [SEE APPENDIX 4], the recruitment of 100 ‘stupid’ acts asked of audiences to contribute to a Youtube / Facebook competition. The winners are to be rewarded for their ‘stupid’ behaviour by being offered a place in their video catalogue at the end of 2010 (Tayebot, 2010.)
Marx refers to this naturalised and often taken for granted narrative as “reification”; a form of social consciousness in which human relations can be identified with physical properties of objects and ultimately acquiring a false feeling of naturalness (Burris, 2005.) Unsurprisingly ideology embraces ‘reification’ i.e. ideas of a naturalised social relation as “it can be argued as a reification all of itself” (Eagleton, 1996) validating its place within advertising and society.
“The pervasive influence of advertising within society has drawn many researchers to the view that advertising constitutes a powerful ideological force within consumer culture.” (Elliott and Ritson et. Al, 1997) cited Kelly, Lawlor & O’Donohoe (2005)
With regards to ‘reification’ and realism, Diesel has a portrayed a very abstracted idea assuming that “stupid” is how its audiences should be without questioning it. Integrating advertising ‘realistically’ into lifestyles is simply using narrative, by relying on representation and signification to control the reality which is conveyed. The way that audiences or readers understand and conclude meanings from texts is very significant as to how they interpret the advertising message on offer. This could see Diesel neither shaping nor mirroring audiences but simply trying to appeal to them through the use of socially significant, cultural references.
The iconography instructed by Diesel adds to the narrative it aims to construct; with many images young attractive models, fun loving and sexually liberated has collectively formulated a generation of ideas and integrated them within the commodities of Diesel products. For example, [SEE APPENDIX 2a] supported by the tagline,“If we didn’t have stupid thoughts. We’d have no interesting thoughts at all.” Presenting a young male perched on the trunk of an elephant, this evidently represents the visual idea of carefree and the linguistic idea of a unique point of view which Diesel is offering with ‘Be Stupid’.
It is believed by Marx, that commodities are consumed to achieve individuality and an expression of oneself much like what Diesel offers here. (Williams, 1980) believed that material objects were never enough as it was the premise of what goods mean that were sought to be achieved not the goods themselves. With reference to Diesel the promise to their audience is that of a lifestyle which incurs no responsibilities but acquires a life of free expression.
The idea or ideology of this told through Diesel’s narrative is illusionary and can never be obtained truthfully or physically through consumption of products. This is a promise reified through advertising and ideology, which Marx argued made the proletariat (audience) innocent and taken advantage of by capitalist society (Diesel) that will commodify anyone or anything it can.
For example [SEE APPENDIX 1a] the young couple appear playful and due to the setting and lack of clothing also assuringly promiscuous. The signification that Diesel has created through this imagery further backs up their claim, that being ‘stupid’ under their manifesto equates to less boundaries allowing a more creative and primitive self to exist without constraint. Referring directly to the ideological inferences through the visual metaphors provided, Diesel are guilty of attempting to shape their audiences.
This campaign relies heavily on the utter belief and reinforcement of the philosophy itself; admitting it too is ‘stupid’ and offering evidence of what a ‘better’ life its audiences could have. Proven through a story told about the Diesel CEO Renzo Rosso; who was initially ‘stupid’ for selling second hand looking jeans as new, leading to him to build the Diesel name (Tayebot, 2010.) Here it would seem that Diesel is even trying to shape itself in order to appeal to its audiences, by affixing the new philosophy of stupid upon their entire brand tonality. Would this mean then that it is more likely mirroring society and altering itself accordingly?
It appears that Diesel is attempting to create a social value within its audience; ‘behave non-conformist and you’ll be happy’ almost a Freudian analogy (Tayebot, 2010) by obeying the ‘id’. The philosophy seems to be determined much like an ideology, using the text i.e. this campaign, to structure its audiences beneficially for the brand (Lotman, 1982.) Marxist interpretation of ideology would argue the process of producing ideas and values such as this is producing culture, as demonstrated by the quote below.
“Advertising agencies are institutions where cultural meanings, where cultural creativity and commercial business objectives co-exist and collide and the discourses of capitalism and culture become enmeshed and intertwined.” (Kelly, Lawlor & O’Donohoe, 2002)
This quote highlights how intentions of brands such as Diesel are attempting to create culture to their advantage, and provides a pro argument for the idea of Diesel shaping its audiences for obvious benefits.
Diesel:Be Stupid consists of around 40 images each constructing situations of what Diesel believes to be ‘stupid’ behaviour and the benefits of this proposed lifestyle. These are further anchored by the 15 taglines that are often repeated over these images. For example “Stupid is Trial and Error. Mostly Error.” [SEE APPENDIX 1a] “Stupid Might Fail. Smart Doesn’t Even Try” [SEE APPENDIX 2b.] “Smart Says No. Stupid Says Yes.” [SEE APPENDIX 3b]
Diesel have formulated stories or wisdoms, even ideologies, of what ‘smart’ and ‘stupid’ are according to their beliefs. Essentially Diesel has reversed ‘smart’ to ‘stupid’ in its conventional known sense and through signification of models behaviour and appearance audiences will understand just as Diesel intends.
For example; “Be Stupid and you’ll have more sex” [Diesel Catalogue, 2010.] and “Smart may have the brains. But stupid has the balls” [SEE APPENDIX 3a.] both see ‘stupid’ as the more attractive, original, daring, exciting and popular as it is associated with perceived preferable behaviour and traits that could be obtainable to its audiences for example, “Smart Critiques. Stupid Creates” [SEE APPENDIX 1b.]
These stereotypes are very simplified and the campaign could be seen as ‘dumbing down’ audiences as a result of this. Marx made an argument for ‘stupefying the masses’ which he exclaimed was due to ‘false consciousness’ or ‘ideological consciousness” (McLellan, 1971.) False consciousness to Marx, was based on the idea that a capitalist society is misleading to the proletariat in this case Diesel’s target audience. As a result of ideological control from those with power i.e. Diesel, audiences are misled without knowledge or awareness of such occurrences. (Eagleton, 1996) Clearly Marxist thought would believe that Diesel are indeed attempting to shape their audiences into being ‘stupid’; because they hold the position of power over their unsuspecting audiences and disperse their created ideologies onto them through their commodities.
Audiences are hopefully not so naïve and can possibly understand advertisements for what they are. The idea of ‘smart’ versus ‘stupid’ seems to be more about changing perceptions of the terms involved, than blindly categorising and controlling consumers however there is still an obvious intention. Audiences can also use stereotypes as referents to decode adverts to quickly identify the stories being told, and therefore can decode the message as Diesel primarily intended.
The role of advertising here has been used to present imaginary lifestyles associated with the products on offer and follows what (Messaris, 2002) believes the three main roles of advertising are with regards to visual persuasion. Firstly to stimulate the appearance of real, in this case reifying the new meaning of ‘stupid’ audiences as a natural conquest of society. Secondly as photographic ‘proof’, reinforcing the creation of ‘real’ and incessantly attempting to prove it to audiences. Thirdly, to make an implicit link between product and image; the link being here to highlight the attractiveness of not only the models within the images but also their attitude and lifestyles and aligning with the product.
By also introducing an opposing way of behaving i.e. ‘smart’, incites an idea of ‘other’ [Saarni and Harris, 1989] and what the audience should negatively differentiate themselves from. During the industrial revolution the role of advertising was to educate audiences to become consumers to make sense of a new type of living through advertising texts at the time. Essentially this isn’t too different from what Diesel is attempting with ‘Be Stupid’. However being a consumer is so natural to audiences now, particularly young audiences, that it has almost become naturalised or ‘normal’.
With reference to the evidence so far, the way that Diesel has constructed its philosophy would appear very much an attempt of shaping its audience. The very baseline of this campaign is imperative; simple, short and to the point; “BE STUPID!” Aligning this with a proposed lifestyle or ideology of a lifestyle containing strong iconography and visual metaphors of: breaking the rules,loosening the boundaries and consequently having more fun, further reiterates Diesel attempting to shape its audience by offering them an image of a way of life that is imitable and glamorous.
On the other hand could the argument for Diesel be, if advertising promoting ideologies is naturalised within audience’s perceptions, would they see them as simply that, advertisements, and not necessarily believe them for what they portray. Within this line of thought could it be Diesel is in fact mirroring what is already there in order for audiences to relate to the reality they see in texts, but glamorised through methods such as sexual imagery and unrealistic narratives.
According to Williamson (1978) advertising intentionally reflects i.e. mirrors “human reality” due to its natural and overwhelming presence in everyday lives. Williamson (1978) provides an argument for a self-reflective advertising system which assigns human values to products in order to promote purchasing and satisfy a non-material need. Essentially the proposal Williamson makes is that; “…advertising sells us ourselves, or at least what we would like ourselves to be…” making a good case for Diesel constructing its advertisements within the Be:Stupid campaign to include human values alike those of audiences. Not literally likening its audiences to stupid people but to all those attributes it wishes to align with their new philosophy / ideology of ‘stupid’ i.e. brave, original, cool etc. and dismissing any qualities associated with ‘smart’ i.e. stuffy, geeky, straight-laced.
To conclude, Diesel has constructed a very controversial yet simplified campaign which will stand out and shout to their audiences. Understanding how they will respond is not for this essay to decide; however it must be noted this will have a large affect upon how audiences negotiate the desired meanings and how much they believe them to be real.
By deciphering what appear to be Diesel’s advertising objectives or intentions and exploring the methods, which seem most prominent within this argument this essay makes a stronger argument that in fact Diesel is attempting to shape its audiences. Firstly, looking at the narrative within the advertisements of Be:Stupid; these consisted of aspirational and imitable models who not only physically seemed appealing but their portrayal of Diesel’s ‘stupid’ behaviour also reinforced this. Using clear stereotypes and caricaturing ‘smart ‘against ‘stupid’ made the idea seem very contrived and a clear attempt of shaping its audiences, mainly due to the promises offered in return. Moreover through other methods added to the narrative such as strong iconography, visual metaphors and supporting this offered lifestyle.
As Ideology is largely a Marxist term, it was accepted that this illusionary lifestyle was portrayed to audiences as real or reified. Ultimately Marx would argue this was solely for the benefit of capitalism and that Diesel has created an ideological consciousness for which its audiences will follow, in the pursuit of the unobtainable promised lifestyle. Following Marxist ideological theory, Diesel has created culture by ‘inventing’ a new form of ‘stupid’ and then enticing or shaping audiences to adhere through false premise and fetishised commodities.
The strongest contra argument linked to the point made initially, how audiences relate to ideology within advertisements. Advertising is indeed a part of everyday lives and is more than likely taken for granted; however they can be understood as nothing more and so would not have the desired effect Diesel wishes. Whatsmore it provides the strongest case for Diesel having to mirror society and include audiences as they have with their Facebook recruitment idea.
Ideology and advertising are two words that some would argue do not function without one other; however is it that advertising portrays ideologies or that advertising is simply ideological. With regards to the Diesel Be Stupid, the campaign has gone out of it’s way to produce a new philosophy or perhaps ‘ideology’ at it’s audience with an imperative tone and encouraging a new perspective upon the behaviour of stupidity. This largely print based campaign has gathered approximately 40 images under 15 taglines all in the name of this philosophy portraying stupid against ‘smart’ with all assigned significations and stereotypes aligned as stupid becoming the most popular, original and ironically “genius” compared with that of smart as the polar opposites.
Diesel as a brand has a certain reputation for being particularly controversial, referred back to within this current campaign; in the form of an allegiance to Renzo Rosso and his success based on a so-called “stupid” idea of selling old looking jeans as new perhaps this was less stupid and actually more originality which is evidently what Diesel want their audience to absorb.
So does Diesel actually shape its audience or in fact mirror it? Well if you were to analyse the imperative style of copywriting one would have to agree there is a definite attempt in defining certain behaviours and adjectives that it’s audience ‘should’ be in order to qualify for the label of ‘stupid’. With examples of taglines such as “be stupid and you’ll have more sex” and “smart has the brains, but stupid has the balls” implicitly infers that without following the proposed behaviours idealised by Diesel audience members one will qualify as the opposite of what Diesel names ‘stupid’ i.e. stuffy, geeky, never trying, conformist and square. Ironically one must point out here that by attempting to shape it’s audience and calling for them to follow the rules as it were then unknowingly audiences will be doing exactly that, conforming.
In the early beginnings of advertising as we know it today, it is proposed that within the modernist era advertising fulfilled an educative role of teacher audiences to become consumers. One could argue that these implicit behaviour shaping from Diesel could be following a similar role for their advertising; educating their audiences what they need to be, look like and behave like in order to earn the brand’s associations. Modernist advertising followed this idea based on a community of shared meanings, much like today’s youth audiences which is the obvious target for this particular campaign.