‘The East’ in Advertising – Part 1

I try to compile advertising media images of Orientalism just to have a visceral representation of how Orientalism plays out in a certain sub-set of media. Perhaps one day I can put together a series of film clips that show the same.

The first video, an ad for a Nomad phone package, shows quite a number of tropes. It is about India, as Other. Let’s Watch.

It opens with a series of romanticized images of India as the exotic, bountiful, Other: full of the treasure we can have access to. Here take note the gaze of the camera: it is a romanticized, colonial gaze. We follow, in the narrative, the exploits of the white woman as she negotiates her journey through the East–hearkening back to 19th century travel journals (many penned by women) that were a part of sparking the imagination towards the East and a contributor to the discourse of colonial Orientalism. The images flash before our eyes and collect to our imagination the semiotics of Orientalism: elephants, gold, saddhu, available wealth, access to elite indigenous power.

But then, the union of East and West poses a threat. The white woman, duped, is now part of the harem. She has lost her Western privilege. She is trapped by the East in a despotic social arrangement. Other threatening tropes rise to our mind: despotism, barbarism, irrational inequality. On the one hand, we might argue that it was her own colonial and Orientalist imaginings that led her to this ‘trap’. Homi Bhabha has argued that the colonial imagination is both of these simultaneously. It is ambivalent: “The menace of mimicry is its double vision which in disclosing the ambivalence of colonial discourse also disrupts its authority. And it is a double vision that is a result of what I’ve described as the partial representation/ recognition of the colonial object.” The trap was set before the curtain even opened on this ad.

On the other hand, the East as both romanticized AND dangerous is a hallmark of Orientalism. It is an ambivalent, contested representation. Orientalism must represent the East as BOTH opportunity and threat. It must call to the desire of the Western Self, but must repel this call at the same time to preserve the essence of the West. The threat is to the very identity of the West as a Self. That is, if Orientalism is a discursive regime that imagines the East as Other in order to define the West as Self, any union is a threat, and necessarily so. So, this ad reinforces and recreates some of the most fundamental tropes of Orientalism.

A final point: It is no coincidence that the protagonist is a white woman. Women as property, tagged by race, insights the fear of the colonial gaze by having a brown, colonized man then possess the true property of White, colonial ownership. Racism, colonialism, misogyny, and Orientalism. All are different, and yet all are intertwined.

And the threat? Encapsulated quite well in the capping statement. In English translation it might be something like: Know what you are getting into before you commit. Reflechissez avant de vous engeger. Before you get with the Other, remember this commercial, where we point out that the mysterious Other can be a dangerous, duplicitous, threat. Remember this, so that you can go with the sure thing, the known. Ironically, I am sure some white women watching, who know the perils of Western Patriarchy, seeing the luxury of the harem, might feel attracted to this idealized image of Eastern Patriarchy rather than the sure thing, which they know so well and must deal with on a daily basis, something that is often no less threatening.



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