Global Ad Campaigns Diverge To Chilling Effect
In 2005, Tarsem Singh directed two fairly similar Pepsi commercials: one for Europe and one for the Middle East. In both, Britney Spears, Pink, and Beyoncé star as Roman gladiatrixes who incite a populist coup in the emperor’s arena.
At first glance, it looks like the main difference is in the casting. Depending on your region, you’d have gotten either Enrique Iglesias or (Egyptian popstar) Amr Diab as your emperor. But the real divergence doesn’t happen until the final moments of each spot. In the Iglesias version, the coup is successful, and his despot is catapulted into the arena just as the portcullis is raised on a hungry lion:
In the Diab variation, it’s the emperor who raises the portcullis, releasing the lion on the three women:
Of course, there’s no actual footage of anyone getting mauled, but it’s perfectly clear what’s happening. And it blows my mind.
Now, I don’t want to get too facile here and do a purely misogynistic reading of the Diab commercial. Clearly there’s a political element to it all, and to some extent the three gladiators are being punished in their capacity as rebels, as challengers to the social order, and not simply as “women” per se. In his paper “Advertising and Empire: Selling America in the Middle East”, Robert W. Lawrence even argues that what the women represent, above all, is American imperialism. As such, they must be symbolically crushed by Diab, an Arab, so that the Middle East can feel better about buying Pepsi–which is, of course, among the most culturally imperialistic of American brands.
None of this makes the Diab spot any less chilling to watch. I don’t care if Britney, Pink, and Beyoncé are portraying flesh-and-blood women or abstract symbols; the fact is that, in both commercials, their rabble-rousing is working and the crowd is on their side, and still Diab’s emperor flips the switch and condemns them to a violent death. Now, if I happened to be the political advisor to an actual tyrant, this is just what I’d tell him to do, but as a marketing executive for a soft drink (a soft drink!), I might opt for an approach that didn’t end in the capital punishment of folk heroes without trial.