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The Spectacle Strikes Back: Using protests for commercial gain

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A morning ritual which I can’t seem to break out of is looking at the BBC’s ‘newspaper front page’ section (you know, just to make sure I start the day with a bit of outrage). Perusing the website this morning, I scrolled down to see the front page of the Metro. Nothing particularly outlandish today, but my eyes were immediately drawn to the banner at the bottom. The red hues, the circular faux-painted logo with a single character, a flag fluttering in the background; the unconscious, half-second response was that there was some anarchist, revolutionary protest group that had found the funds to broadcast in the national media. However, it was very soon apparent that this was far from the truth…

Screen Shot 2015-10-30 at 08.10.24

It was the new advertising campaign for Rimmel London, #alipstickrevolution (pictured above). My immediate response was to laugh this off and congratulate the advertising executives responsible for a quirky, clever bit of marketing. However, with a further investigation online of Rimmel’s website and Twitter, the discomfort I felt continued to grow…

A stylised ‘anarcho-punk’ symbol (source: Wiki)

The entire campaign is geared about revolutionary and protest aesthetics. The red-painted ‘R’ in a circle they’ve used is a clear appropriation of anarchist symbolism (see above). And the TV advert has Kate Moss the Second prancing around in sexed-up, titillatingly militarised, but Communard-riffing outfit, surrounded by a glamorous looking ‘mob’ plastering posters of lipstick over the streets. The website professes that ‘the Revolution Needs You!’

You get the idea. The ad agency working for Rimmel clearly thought that a generic brand of lipstick could be hawked a bit better if there was a campaign that tapped into the current protest images and narratives that are prevalent in the media of late. The problem is, such actions have very real consequences.

London’s housing crisis has catalysed many anti-gentrification and protests groups throughout the capital. There have been a myriad of marches (some of which I have been on), reactionary protests and co-ordinated campaigns, all of which are utilising every inch of their will to fight against an oppressive and unjust housing system that is propelled by a prevailing political ideology of austerity. Many of these protests use similar logos, materials and designs deliberately to espouse a particular politics. It stems from a long history of protest and critique; from the Paris Commune in 1870s, to the student uprising in Paris in May 1968. The Situationists International, a group of Parisian activists in the 1960s famously reacted against ‘The Spectacle‘ of consumerism with a suite of subversive activities, but it seems now, the Spectacle is striking back.

The political theorist Jacques Rancière argues that the aesthetics and politics are inseparable, but those in power (in this example, the capitalist institutions of advertising agencies and corporations) look to disaggregate the two. By co-option of a revolutionary and protest aesthetic, the companies are obtaining a ‘new’ look that has not been used before (i.e. a growth of ‘The Spectacle’) and all the while, redacting any political messages that come with it. The politics are being stripped from the protest ‘look’, which is being repackaged as a consumerist choice.

In London, this is particularly acute with ‘hipsterfication’ (for much, MUCH want of a better phrase) being so rampant, that any acts of defiance, resistance or subversion are being recast as a lifestyle to be sold. Rimmel have taken this to a new level by(rather quite blatantly and crassly) co-opting the revolutionary and anarchist aesthetic, as well as the general feeling of protest in the city, and turning into a fad that can be hawked.

“Get the London look” indeed…

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Author: Oli

Human Geographer at Royal Holloway, University of London

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