GRSJ300: Culture jam assignment

Advertisement for “Believe it or not” exhibit at Science World.

The original advertisement is for “The Science of Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” exhibit at Science World. It appeared in bus stop ads in several places around Vancouver, but has since been replaced with a more generic ad, perhaps because of the issues I raise with my culture jam. I have found a photo of the front of the exhibit to use, but the composition is the same as the advertisements, just with a different aspect ratio. The ad depicts a person with neck rings and calls on the viewer to “explore the unbelievable”. Although, the ad may be well intentioned, it misses important background information and leaves room for objectification and othering of non-western cultures (particularly Kayan people). The format of the ad relies on using the viewer’s unfamiliarity with the subject to generate a sense of oddness, hopefully drawing the viewer in. This centralizes a western way of thinking, and places Kayan people as outsiders. This is harmful because it supports a colonial narrative. Even though people who wear neck rings are a minority, their cultural practices do not deserve to be endowed with otherness. Furthermore, the ad does nothing to position itself against historical oppression of Kayan people, being fetishized by circuses. This ad seems be a natural continuation of this circus tradition. In essence, it reduces to the subject to an object, while inscribing them as an other.

When researching the ad, I found that Ripley’s had used similar ads in other cities, not without critique. For example, Lisa Wade saw an ad featuring the same picture in Florida, and this was back in 2013. If this does nothing else, it shows that there is not enough opposition to this culturally insensitive vein of advertising. I would also infer that the advertisements are successful and this is why Ripley’s keeps using them.

Jammed version of the ad; subject replaced with a Christmas tree.

My jam of the advertisement relies on changing the subject to an object of colonial tradition and culture. This highlights the bizarre purpose of the ad; depicting a cultural practice as an oddity. I decided to use a Christmas tree as an object of colonial tradition. I do understand that a tree may not have as much ‘shock’ value as the woman’s image even when separated from their respective cultures. But my intention in this was to analyze the images as culture practices and not directly for their content. I didn’t feel comfortable creating a parallel between a western tradition the Kayan one, because likely none exists, and in attempting to find one I impose my ignorance of Kayan culture.

The Christmas tree is entangled with colonial narratives. As Europeans colonized territory, they brought with them Christian religion as a supposed civilizing force. In my ad the Christmas tree acts as shorthand for the perpetrator of colonialism, whereas the Kayan women represents the victim. My ad displays colonial culture in a mirror. While the original ad encourages the viewer to look at non-western culture through a colonialist lens. My intention in doing this was to contrast the experience of viewing an object that is entwined with colonial culture and one that exists separate from it. As an outsider, there is an innate sense of unfamiliarity to the image of the Kayan women, because she represents a minority. This makes the “explore the unbelievable” line ring true to the viewer. However, even as an outsider to Christianity, the image of the Christmas tree is a familiar one. As subjects of colonialism, Christian culture becomes normalized, even though it might not be our culture. An ad that depicts a Christmas tree as an oddity could not succeed in western society because Christian culture is a social normal. And thus in my advertisement the “explore the unbelievable” line becomes false as Christianity is always believable in our society. I can’t extend this argument to people living outside of heavily Christianized countries, but I have only seen the ad used in Christian countries, so I think the contrast is an apt one.

Overall, I attempt to create a point of comparison and a starting point for discussion. It is difficult for advertising to avoid exploiting humanity’s essential strong feelings toward the unknown. Simply because ads like this work. But perhaps we can work toward a society where the original ad would garner a similar effect to the jammed one? A shrug and confusion. Discarding the innate sense of unfamiliarity which allows the ad to function. Replacing it with cultural believability and belonging that prevents otherness.

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