True Colors

by Michael Rock
1993

Paradoxically, capital has fallen in love with difference: advertising thrives on selling us things that will enhance our uniqueness and individuality. It’s no longer about keeping up with the Joneses, its about being different from them. From World Music to exotic holidays in Third World locations, ethnic TV dinners to Peruvian hats, cultural difference sells.
– Jonathon Rutherford

Look at a magazine, a television commercial, an annual report or a mail order catalogue these days and you’d think it was one big world lovefest out there. Apparently we are all equal in our desire to enjoy Coca Cola, fly United, experience Revlon. Following the Benetton lead and fueled by all the global economy rhetoric, diversity has become the predominant marketing message in the past couple of years. But there is a problematic contradiction lurking just beneath the surface of multinational multiculturalism
        That problem lies in the paradox of a superficial celebration of cultural difference used for international corporate marketing strategies based in sameness; i.e. product identity and consistency. While images from catalogues and magazine ads may promote a kind of uni-world culture, the proffered products and design style are unconditionally western, first-world inventions.
        Ironically, while the campaigns for Coca Cola, Benetton or Philips promise a multicultural experience for the predominantly white, middle-class Euro-American audience, the products of multinational corporations represent the allure of west for developing-world consumers. For instance, Marlboro is the largest selling brand of cigarette in the third world, due at least in part to its cultural signification of the western frontier and American individualism. And when the Berlin wall finally fell, Coca Cola made sure that corporate reps were there to pass out free six-packs to liberated Easterners. It seems that access to Western products has become synonymous with freedom.

The magazine COLORS is a fascinating enigma in the emerging cultural marketplace, especially a recent issue focusing on an overarching theme of race. While COLORS began as a Benetton promotion in magazine form, designed and edited in New York, and distributed through the worldwide network of Benetton stores, it is currently being reconfigured as an independent, self-supporting entity. The magazine deftly refigures complex issues of ethnicity and cultural difference into witty graphic games intended for the youngish Benetton-buying audience. But COLORS proves how even in questioning the myths that surround issues of race, the nexus of multiculturalism and marketing can inadvertently reinstate the very stereotypes they attempt to overturn.
        Part of the problem lies in COLORS mixed-up relationship to Benetton. Although the magazine claims complete editorial freedom and quasi-independence from its parent it is difficult to ignore the strong corporate and graphic ties between the two: the publishing group, COLORS SrL was completely financed by Benetton SpA; the name derives from the ubiquitous “United Colors of Benetton”; the graphic and photographic style – stark white pages and silhouetted images – and the saccharine we-are-the-world theme are all direct indices of the worldwide Benetton advertising campaign and the signature of Corporate Advertising Director Oliveiro Toscani; and the magazine is available in Benetton stores all over the globe. Other than that it is totally independent.
        But while the first three issues of the magazine – laced with the infamous Benetton ads – were available solely through the retail store network or by special request, the race issue and all subsequent issues of the magazine will be sold at the newsstand and carry advertising for non-Benetton products to generate operating income. In that, it may be the first advertisement that grew up to sell ad space to other advertisers.
        The magazine is often compelling, humorous, twisted and certainly takes its share of risks (isn’t that what Benetton is known for?). But it often seems COLORS can be simmered down to a couple of lines from the closing editorial of issue no.4: “Hey guys, imagine a world in which everyone looks, talks and thinks exactly like you. Everything, absolutely everything – sex, movies, fashion, football matches – would be boring.” Or even more simply “Diversity is good.” This image of race as entertainment fulfills critic bell hooks’ assertion (in her book “Black Looks: Race and Representation”): “The commodification of Otherness has been so successful because it is offered as a new delight, more intense, more satisfying than normal ways of doing and feeling. Within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture.”
        The editorial position seems to be that under the facade of skin color we are all the same, why don’t we all just love one another. Articles, short captions and photographs seem to explicate the problem of race; a photograph of a black and a white finger each with a dollop of bright red blood; treatises on hair type; computer manipulated images of celebrities, a black Queen Elizabeth, a white Spike Lee, etc;  But the climax of the magazine comes 46 pages in with the exclamation: “We’ve told you about skin color, ear wax consistency and nose size. Now what do you really want to know about people of other races? We though so. What would it be like to have sex with someone of a different race.” This spread is followed by full body portraits of a variety of “beautiful people” couples of different races underscored by tiny captions like “Will they be better than we are?” This is the quintessence of diversity-as-entertainment; interracial sex is offered as a transformative experience. bell hooks sums up the logic:


Commodity culture in the United States exploits conventional thinking about race, gender and sexual desire by “working” both the idea that racial difference marks one as Other and by the assumption that sexual agency expressed within the context of racialized sexual encounter is a conversion experience that alters one’s place and participation in contemporary cultural politics.



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        As COLORS moves from Benetton ad to independent magazine, it moves from the business of selling sweaters to selling itself and its ad space. And so cultural difference has to be made entertaining enough to entice kids to buy the magazine (it can’t be too preachy) and advertisers to buy ad pages (it has to be read by an audience with a disposable income worth selling to.) And while the magazine editorializes about the disparity of wealth in the world, it will have to increasingly accept ads peddling Western products and consumerism to its global audience to pay for that editorial independence.
        In addition, class difference signified by product consumption is often a code for racial or cultural difference, especially in the foggy language of business and politics (e.g. a politician using “welfare mother” as a substitute for “young, female, African American.”) Paradoxically, Toscani often defends his use of nude models on the grounds that without clothing, class issues are obscured. Perhaps, but doesn’t context figure in here in a major way? These are ads and paid models after all, and in the context of the slick magazine, a single-class world image where we all share in the joy of products is possible – like the ad for Philips in COLORS picturing a black boy and a white girl in Benetton-bright sweaters linked by the single CD player they are plugged into and framed in a TV screen. The class issue is especially important because the marketed product – the Benetton sweater, the Philips TV or the pack of Marlboros -- is in itself a class signifier. Advertisers have to sell to the “haves -” the “have-nots” can’t participate in the market.
        So here’s the problem. While proposing to question racial classifications in an entertaining way, multicultural marketing can actually re-inscribe those differences and offer solution only through a sameness identified with product use; the product becomes the frame of reference, the emblem that serves to mollify the discomfort of real difference. A more subtle discussion around issues of domination of one race by another and the differing experiences underlying cross-racial discourse – an oppressed race necessarily will view race issues differently than a supremacist one – is difficult to manage with a big picture and a 75 word caption.

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Underlying all these messages is the construction of sameness that mirrors the corporate need; that we are all the same in our desire for Marlboros or Pepsi. This is what’s called a horizontal strategy. But if the distribution network and money are available for even a flawed product like COLORS, isn’t that better than other ways of marketing? Isn’t it better to employ any kind of educational device that might make someone reconsider some preconceived idea of race, than sell Marlboros to third world teenage boys with the allure of the American Cowboy?
        But then; again isn’t there a kind of style-driven imperialism when a handful of Manhattenites (or a handful of Milanese for that matter) presume to design – as is proclaimed on the cover of COLORS – “a magazine for the rest of the world”? The bilingual structure (one language always being English) subtly reveals the idea. The English-speaking world is the standard version against which the Other is played. The perspective is always West; the backdrop always white.

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In a radio broadcast last spring, a young Serbian law student fervidly defended his involvement in the civil war in Bosnia. “We are fighting...” the young man ranted “... against the melting pots, a new world that is built by United Colors of Benetton, or Rockefeller World Center and all those communal Capitalists.” About the same time the local governments in Quebec and Moscow debated ordinances that demanded that Western companies translate all retail signage and logos into French or Cyrillic. Somewhere between the fascist raging of the Serbien soldier and the zoning board discussions in cities around the world there is the sense of local cultures desperately trying to protect themselves from the unchecked invasion of the multinational corporation.
        Benetton’s reluctance to translate “The United Colors of Benetton” (which is used in English worldwide) to “Benetton, Toutes Couleurs Unies”  or into the Cyrillic alphabet reveals the stake the company has in its identification,not with diversity, but rather a consistent corporate identity that clearly evokes the allure of first-world culture.


        Ultimately the result of selling is sales, no matter what the design tool used to accomplish that end. Most studies confirm that the sales message disappears quickly while product memory lingers on. Marketing demands no other action than purchasing. After all, in the years since Coca Cola gathered all those 1970s multi-ethnic coke drinkers on the hilltop to belt out “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony...” to last year’s annual report celebrating Coke around the globe, Coca Cola sales worldwide have skyrocketed. Can we say the same for cultural relations? The multicultural images of racial harmony may seem kaleidoscopic but a close inspection reveals their true color: bright white.