In August, French fashion brand Dior unveiled a new line of men’s fragrance titled “Sauvage“. Dior used a promotional campaign featuring Johnny Depp as a lone wanderer encountering an abstracted version of Native American culture.
The backlash was swift and scathing. Within 24 hours, Dior had pulled the entire campaign, scrubbing their social media and Youtube channels of all promotional materials.
The spectacular flame-out of Dior’s Native-American-themed fragrance line seems predictable in hindsight (and foresight, and pretty much any other type of sight), but the fallout has given rise to some interesting questions about cultural appropriation in advertising.
Consultation doesn’t guarantee propriety
Like many failed campaigns before it, those behind Dior’s Sauvage consulted with representatives of the culture they sought to celebrate. Even the choice of Depp as the celebrity spokesperson of the campaign was made for a reason. Depp has claimed loose Native American ancestry. The Comanche tribe adopted him in 2012, preceding his performance as Native American scout Tonto in Disney’s The Lone Ranger. Dior also teamed up with Americans for Indian Opportunity, a representative consultancy group dedicated to “fighting cultural appropriation and promoting authentic inclusion.” Americans for Indian Opportunity played a major role in the production of a short film released in tandem with the new campaign.
However, things were not as they seemed. Depp’s claimed proximity to Native American heritage is questionable. Also, his adoption into the Comanche tribe in 2012 was part of his efforts to assuage claims of cultural appropriation for his performance as a Native American character in The Lone Ranger. Many felt that role should have given to an actual Native American actor.
On top of that, Dior’s fragrance is, regrettably, the French word for “savage”, a slur used to describe the Native Americans by European colonialists for hundreds of years and employed to great, dehumanising effect to justify their genocide as American settlers expanded West. The fragrance itself had been around long before the disastrous Depp promotions, but one must admit it feels like a fluke of science that nobody in Dior’s marketing department managed to notice the potential for offense here. (Note: Depp is also trailed by a list of credible accusations of domestic violence, so his appearance in a campaign for a fragrance literally titled “savage” is itself a rather twisted form of irony.)
Not long after the immolation of the Sauvage campaign, Americans for Indian Opportunity also backed away. They issued a strongly worded statement lamenting that the project, “did not bear out as we had hoped and intended, especially in Dior’s media and public relations campaign, in which we did not consult or have prior knowledge.”
Amid the outrage, one question stands out. What was Dior thinking? The promotional campaign for Sauvage feels very much like a failure that no amount of consultation and sensitivity could salvage.
Cultural appropriation is not so easily addressed. Here’s why.
Cultural representation is more popular in advertising
Cultural representation in advertising is a consequence of the rise of identity politics in modern society. Today’s consumers are more mindful of social power structures and how they affect marginalised or oppressed groups. This has made cultural appropriation (i.e. when white culture uses marginalised cultures for careless or cynical purposes) a point of interest in marketing.
In 2017, Pepsi used African American protests against police brutality as a backdrop. The commercial shows Kendall Jenner, who is white, healing race relations by offering a Pepsi to a police officer, also white.
Later, in January 2019, Fonterra’s Kapititi Cheese in New Zealand drew widespread condemnation when they named a new cheese after famed Maori ancestor Tuteremoana. After a Maori trademarks advisor criticised the decision, Fonterra promised to review all their branding.
Cultural appropriation vs. celebration
Many critics of Dior’s Sauvage campaign pointed out that money raised by the fragrance wouldn’t go to Native American people. This means that Dior was using native culture for their own profit. Ultimately, this is the core problem of cultural appropriation in marketing.
The many cultures of the world are more intertwined than ever before. Therefore, people feel the consequences of cultural appropriation more quickly. Brands and marketers must ask themselves if they respect the cultures they hope to celebrate with the products. Have the educated themselves about the culture’s history? Will the campaign represent members of the culture? Ultimately, if the culture they hope to celebrate doesn’t benefit directly from an advertising campaign, that campaign is nothing more than exploitation.
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