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It's hardly rare for advertising types to grapple with their consciences; to wonder at times whether it might be more worthwhile to save the world (or even just write a really uplifting screenplay), rather than go on shilling for Sugar Pops. Thankfully, perhaps, most know better than to flaunt their personal doubts and anxieties in their ads.

Enter the folks at Diesel.

In its "Brand O" print and TV campaign, the Italian jeans peddler publicly flogs itself-and all the big, bad, global advertisers of the world-by announcing that advertising is banal, heartless, and out of touch with the lives of ordinary people, in this case represented by the struggling denizens of North Korea. Presumably, such a self-damning admission is intended to absolve Diesel of these very sins (anyone "honest" enough to announce that advertising is corrupt must be operating on a higher moral ground than all the other advertisers, seems to be the thinking). But the opposite conclusion is equally valid-that Diesel, in this instance, just may have raised advertising's banality and callousness to new levels.

Think Thin

The "Brand O" campaign, created by Diesel's longtime-albeit recently demoted-Swedish agency, Paradiset DDB in Stockholm, depicts scenes of oppressive daily life in North Korea, one of the last remaining communist states. (The country is never specifically identified in the ads, but a Diesel press release makes a big to-do about the unusual location). Journalistic-style Peter Gehrke photographs show people standing in line, crowding onto buses, looking understandably glum. In the midst of the trudging masses are billboards featuring glamorous fashion models who are promoting fictional Brand O products such as ice cream, gum and a diet program. The diet program is even funnier than the ice cream, if you bear in mind that the famine in North Korea has, by some counts, already cost the lives of thousands.

A single TV spot, made with the production company Traktor, follows the same theme, but adds a bit of melodrama: In an apparent suicide pact, a young, denim-deprived Korean couple jumps off a bridge-then happens to land in the bed of a passing truck.

According to Don Henshall, CEO of Diesel USA, the point of the campaign is to "look at life from a different point of view, while at the same time taking potshots at ourselves as advertisers. You have Third World countries worrying about survival, and yet advertisers are feeding them images that have nothing to do with their daily lives."

The creative director of the campaign, Paradiset's Joachim Jonason, traces the origin of the idea to a visit to Russia. "I saw 'Welcome to Marlboro Country' signs in Moscow, and it just felt wrong," says Jonason, who, along with copywriter Jacob Nelson, adapted the idea to a North Korean setting. "We tried to imagine how it might look as Westerners enter that market, and we put ourselves in the position of the bad Westernized company that tries to sell with happy slogans to people around the world, regardless of the situation."

Paradiset's previous "Successful Living" and "Historical Moments" campaigns made fun of hotshots like politicians and military men, but the "Brand O" campaign is a sharp departure from the playfully absurd scenarios of earlier ads. The choice of a weightier theme was intended to "create a more grown-up version of the 'Successful Living' campaign," says Jonason. The ads inject sarcasm into the otherwise depressing scenes; for example, one Brand O banner claiming, "There's no limit to how thin you can get," is juxtaposed with a scene of Koreans cramming into a bus. "There are a lot of layers to this campaign," Jonason claims. "Some people will take it seriously; others will probably just look at it and find it amusing."

Don't Commie, I'll Call You

Or offensive. Esther Lee, a partner at the New York ad agency DiNoto Lee, is of Korean descent, and says she finds the Diesel campaign "incredibly distasteful." Lee understands what the campaign is trying to do, "taking this self-mocking tone about advertising." But she feels there's something insincere and deeply cynical about it, "because the purpose of the campaign is to draw attention to Diesel, and they're using a terrible situation in North Korea to do that."

Part of what bothers Lee is the sarcasm of the ads. "If you're going to depict people in despair, you can't at the same time have a laugh about it," she says. "That is totally inappropriate."

Eric McClelland, creative director at TBWA Chiat/Day in New York, agrees that the campaign is "in questionable taste." But he stops short of condemning it, calling the ads "powerful, provocative and true to what Diesel's about."

Others are puzzled or, worse, indifferent. Nat Whitten, creative director at Weiss Whitten Stagliano, believes the campaign represents "a departure from the joie de vivre attitude of earlier Diesel ads. I think they're pushing a bit further, trying to get more attention. But the ads leave me cold."

Both Whitten and Greg DiNoto, Lee's partner at DiNoto Lee, see strong parallels between this campaign and some Benetton advertising of a few years back, which also depicted scenes of human suffering. DiNoto believes both campaigns made the mistake of venturing into areas that are hazardous for advertisers. "I think it's unwise for a client to trade on the misfortunes of others," says DiNoto. "Even if the intent is just to make a positive statement, there's the possibility that it will be perceived as exploitation-and that just isn't smart marketing."

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Jonason, meanwhile, is unrepentant. He argues for a more honest discussion of social issues in advertising. "So few people say anything at all in ads," he says. "Young people want to discuss more important things than just what we're selling. And we want to show that this is a company that is concerned about more than just dollars."

Really? At least Benetton had the good sense not to feature its own merchandise in Oliviero Toscani's controversial ads. Diesel jeans, however, grace the shapely hips of every glamorous blonde model in the fake Brand O posters. Social commentary is all fine and good, but at the end of the day, it's still a product plug.

Both Jonason and Henshall insist that the campaign has generated no more complaints than other Diesel work. "We've had a lot of positive feedback," Henshall says. "We have gotten some criticism, but we always do. Some people have said, 'What are you doing showing Third World countries like that?' But if you do something that's not boring and safe, you're going to get that."

The campaign represents something of a swan song for Paradiset, at least in terms of Diesel print work. The agency will continue to handle TV brand image work in the future, but all print-by far the lion's share of the account-has been turned over to London's Lowe Howard-Spink. That shop will focus more on the product, at Diesel's insistence.

Since the "Brand O" campaign broke just as Diesel was making the switch, Whitten and others wonder whether the unstable situation had an impact on the campaign. But Jonason says the ads were in no way influenced by changes in the relationship with the client. "We were working on these ads long before all of that started," he says. And he insists the campaign has only strengthened the agency's bond with Diesel. "They love this advertising," he says.

Henshall confirms that Diesel has been pleased with Paradiset's work, and says that the hiring of Lowe Howard-Spink came about because "we'd been playing the same type of song for a while, and we felt it was time to take it to another level." He also insists we haven't seen the last of Diesel's patented weirdness. "Even though many of the ads will become more product-focused," he says, "the intention is to preserve the quirkiness of Diesel advertising."

No-Depth Charge

It's an understandable goal. The Diesel ads produced by Paradiset over the past few years have earned some of the highest praise in the business-including the Grand Prix at Cannes this year. It has also been, in DiNoto's words, "one of the most important, widely ripped-off campaigns around."

But to some, it has been a source of ongoing irritation, with its hipper-than-thou attitude and its distinctly European flavor of smugness. "I wish somebody could explain to me why Diesel ads are supposed to be so fucking great," says Eric Tilford, creative director at Core in St. Louis. "It has always had a lot of attitude, but the problem is there's no depth to the advertising."

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