June 22, 2008

Global Poverty for Sale

author_karen By Karen Sternheimerinspiration

Do you ever get unsolicited catalogs in the mail? I occasionally get them from “upscale” stores featuring high-priced designer brands.  This makes me laugh because I am an outlet mall shopper at heart, and the thought of spending thousands for a dress or a pair of shoes or a handbag never crosses my mind. I suspect that since many affluent people live in my zip code I am mistaken for one of “them.” 


These catalogs usually go right into the recycling bin, but occasionally I give them a look for a good mock now and clip_image004then. A recent catalog seemed ripe for a laugh, with its extra-thick paper attempting to lure me to shop at South Coast Plaza, the largest mall in Orange County, California, which according to Mapquest is exactly 53.15 miles from my home (for point of reference, Rodeo Drive is less than ten miles away, so if I wanted to spend ridiculous amounts of money I could do so much closer to home). 


But leafing through the catalog was not so funny. The high-fashion shots featured models in their over-priced designer clothes against the backdrop of global poverty. The motorcycle pictured on the left features a license plate that reveals that the shoot took place in the Dominican Republic, a Caribbean island where approximately thirty percent of the population lives in poverty. In 2000, their per capita income was about $2,326.


But poverty is apparently chic, at least when it can add some element of authenticity to the new spring fashion line. As you can see from the ad copy on the right, words like “exotic,” “primitive” and “tribal colors” provide “inspiration” for “new designs.”



Yes, infant mortality rates in the Dominican are 47 per 1,000 live births, more than seven times the U.S. rate of 6.3 per 1,000, and 2.5 percent of the adult population is HIV positive, but they provide us with “simple shapes” and “vivid scenery.”clip_image008


I found this ad for the green Dolce & Gabbana dress particularly interesting. The dress is nice, but the background is what is really interesting: the crumbling shack to the left and people adding “local color” in the far right. While I could not find the price for this particular dress, D & G dresses typically range from $1,500-$2,800 each. In other words, just about the annual income of an average Dominican.


The Quiksilver ad on the right offers a more up-close view of the “vivid scenery.” Here we have decidedly unhappy locals leaning against a house resting on crumbling concrete. Note that only the white model smiles. While his outfit probably cost under $150, much less than the D & G dress, his casual attire contrasts with the shabbier clothes of the others in the picture, particularly the boy with holes in his rolled-up jeans.



In these photos, the people of the Dominican Republic are mere props. Adding to a backdrop of what the ad describes as “exotic,” is the man riding a donkey pulling a cart on the left, and the young boys staring at the model on the right as she poses. 


clip_image012Both of the women’s poses are interesting in light of the persistence of the global sex trade in developing nations. According to a 1997 Miami Herald article, prostitution is a particularly bad problem in the Dominican, with its high poverty rate and increase in international tourism. The majority of women working as prostitutes are mothers trying to support their children; and as with other poor countries, children themselves often end up ensnared in global sex tourism.


clip_image016Yet the images of children in the ads are highly sentimental, enabling us to overlook some of the serious challenges children in “exotic places” confront. In the Dominican Republic, school children must wear uniforms, like the kids in these pictures, although no funding is provided for them. The girls in the ad on the right in the front are dressed in the American store’s clothes, in contrast with their uniformed peers. All stand in rubble but appear happy. clip_image014


The white model to the left, posed as “teacher,” appears pregnant herself, and it is interesting to think about the different life chances that child likely will have compared with children in developing countries. Adding to the “local color,” the book she holds “Incas, Mayas, y Aztecas,” recalls other colonized peoples in a crumbling classroom.


clip_image018Finally, nature itself becomes commodified in these ads. This Jimmy Choo handbag, pictured with a hay-thatched hut in the background, retails for $3,050, more than the average annual income of a Dominican citizen. 


And this necklace pictured on the right turns being green on its head. While the ad copy shown above details the “vivid scenery” and “colors inspired by nature,” this picture seems to suggest clip_image019that nature itself needs adornment.


Advertising may not make us more likely to buy any of this stuff, but it is loaded with interesting sociological components. Here we see issues of the environment, race, socioeconomic status, and globalization embedded into a series of ads. They (probably unintentionally) help us see some of the contrasts between the materialism of the wealthy in industrialized nations and the extreme poor of developing countries. What do you see?


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This is striking. Another explitation. Now, if the profits are being dumped back into the local community, that's something else, but I doubt it. Once again the rich are robbing the poor.

I am voluntarily working with the United Nations on its Millennium Development Goals.
Join my community and check the latest discussion on Poverty Line........

I agree with the points made and do hope that the countries featured did receive some sort of compensation for these ads. On a positive note, one could say that by using these locations the clothes companies are highlighting the poverty, bringing to the "ignorant masses" a problem that will not go away quietly.

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