These images come from an advertising campaign created for the airline Air France in 2014. They depict mainly white women, except for one image (seen here), wearing what is thought of as ‘traditional’ clothing or costume of the places they are flying to. Right away these photos come across as wrong and uncomfortable, the first (above) makes me think that the people behind the campaign had seen Memoirs of a Geisha and stopped their education on Japanese culture there. It leads right into ideas of using cultures as costume, something this campaign tries to combat, and definitely steps into the realm of cultural appropriate and commodification.
The image above is one that feels especially uncomfortable, as the makeup used seems to go as far as to change the eye shape of the model in an attempt that comes across as trying to make her look more ‘Chinese’. In an article by Jeff Yang (seen here) he calls these images and what is happening in them ‘racial and cultural drag’, which I thought was a very interesting way of putting it, especially with drag being typically associated with a parody or exaggeration of stereotype. This is certainly true for these images, however there could be further arguments made as to how drag as an art form is much more nuanced and complex than this simple putting on a culture as a costume. But at its base form this is drag, this is people who are not a part of these cultures and not that ethnicity or nationality dressing up in stereotypical garb and using it as an advertising platform for their own gain. They are exploiting these traditions and using problematic and racist tropes to do so, simply constructing caricatures built from their own imagination and not rooted in authenticity.
In the same article by Yang he states: ‘It’s clear that your ad campaign may be running in the countries of my people, but you’re not actually trying to sell Air France to my people. You’re trying to sell my people to your people.’. I found this point really compelling and so in tune with the idea of the commodification, fetishization and exoticization of people and their cultures. This ad campaign could have chosen to use beautiful images of these countries or photojournalistic/documentary photography of people from these places to show a more authentic representation of the destination, but instead they chose to take, often misused or costume-like parts of these cultures and exploit them for themselves. They commodify the people who do live and are from these places and turn them into their costumes and characters. This puts across an idea that culture is something that can just be taken for personal gain and doesn’t present what travelling is supposed to be somewhat about, which is a sharing of cultures not an imperialistic style of appropriation and asserting dominance or an assumed right to be able to ‘put on’ these cultures and take them off whenever they please.
I also found it interesting that, as far as I know, this ad campaign features only women. Which brings it all right back to one of the basic facets of Orientalism as a whole, which is the feminisation of the ‘East’ by the ‘West’. Although the women here are presented as white, supposedly French, Western women, it still places an emphasis on these cultures as being solely feminine in their dress, art, and theatricality.
The the final image below is supposed to promote their flights to Africa and just really sums up how problematic and racist this is as a whole. All in all I found that this campaign is so misguided in what could have been a nice way of advertising the unique beauty of each destination but is instead one that is full of racism, Orientalism and a commodification of cultures for the benefit of this Western corporation and travellers.It perpetuates a base Orientalist hierarchy or the ‘West’ dominating, taking from and capitalising on the exploitation and sensationalizing of the ‘East’.