Ad Tells Story About Gender Inequality in Iraq, but Without Cultural Competency [VIDEO]
Advertisements can be smart, slick and striking, leaving inimitable marks on our collective consciousness that define products for decades.
And then sometimes they can just be astoundingly vapid.
The Jordan Brand's #riseabove video campaign, designed by ad agency Blast Radius, strives to demonstrate support for “amateur athletes from around the world as they face personal, societal and environmental challenges,” as an artsy black and white intro to each video short helpfully explains. The apparent strategy here is to highlight just how supportive the Jordan Brand company is of young people determined to change the world. In today's 'everyone can be a savior' society, that's an idea that seems certain to win over the hearts, minds and dollars of a new generation of consumers.
Unfortunately, Jordan Brand's debut video attempts to do so by minimizing the complicated cultural and class divides in the war-torn nation of Iraq, and oversimplifying the struggle for gender equality there, to a heartwarming game of basketball at the country's American University.
Cultural competency, one assumes, was swapped out to feature a punchier narrative. In some ways, this flawed presentation is to Blast Radius' credit: it shows that their creative minds know what gets people going. On the other hand, the video leans too excessively on simplistic understandings of what it means to live in the Middle East. When it comes to women’s rights in the Muslim world, more or less any narrative about overcoming adversity, even the most contrived one, appeals. To a largely Western and white audience, focusing on a single success story is less taxing than understanding that millions of less affluent women remain oppressed, or that until governments make some difficult choices about foreign policy, consumption and wealth distribution, the status quo won’t change.
Blast Radius is evidently familiar with this preference, and in this warped video for Jordan Brand, they milk it for all it’s worth.
Here’s the story as they’d have you digest it: Iraqi society, being “antiquated” (per our charming narrator), is a pretty closed-minded place when it comes to women’s rights. Incorporating some vaguely Middle Eastern, potentially Iraqi, music on loop in the background, the video features two unidentified men (and later a third), each arguing that women cannot be allowed to play sports in public. We then cut to 20-year-old Laylan, a college student and player on the women’s basketball team at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani. She discusses the “struggle for women to prove themselves” in her country, and then goes on to explain how playing basketball has enabled her to feel like a more confident young woman. More commentary follows, and viewers get some poignant shots of the team during practice and a game, before the video wraps up with talk of basketball helping the young college student “feel alive.”
Laylan and her team deserve to be heralded for all the work they’ve put into becoming what she calls a “real team,” one with skills, dedication and a clear work ethic. What’s problematic here is not their team dynamic – it’s how they’re presented.
Touching as it may be, the promo is distinctly facile in a way that undercuts the complexity of women’s rights issues in the Muslim world. It sets up an opposition that, once unpackaged, reveals itself to be almost completely false. The women's team and the men we are meant to see as their direct opponents operate in different worlds, united by nationality but divided by rigid class structures to the point where their views stand little chance of affecting each other's behavior.
Consider, for a moment, who exactly these "good" guys and "bad" guys are. The latter is a group of men chosen at random in public settings. Two of the three are out on the street in the blazing Iraqi sun. All of them are older than the female students. And all of them speak Arabic.
Basically, they’re regular Iraqis with no frills. And chances are that they do represent a view most men of their social class and age group share.
And then there’s our star, Laylan. She’s young and vivacious. She speaks English throughout the video. The viewer sees her in a heavily-postered bedroom that could belong to any teenager in the Western world, or with her friends, clad in a basketball uniform or skinny jeans.
To the American viewer, Laylan is ‘normal’ and familiar, and that makes empathy towards her apparent struggle easier. She's not an ethnic girl in some exotic bazaar; she's a chatty college student speaking from her laptop in her air-conditioned bedroom.
To the Iraqi viewer, however, Laylan is probably recognizable in a different way - as someone who's simply not an average Iraqi.
She is a student at the American University of Iraq Sulaimani, whose founder told The New York Times that he wanted to “develop the political elite of the future.” I don’t doubt that Laylan, with her American accent and enrollment at university that requires an International Baccalaureate high school education and fees the Times calls “beyond the reach of the average middle-class Iraqi family,” is exactly the sort of student he had in mind. She seems bright and motivated, and while it is possible that she's at the American University on a scholarship, it's indisputable that she has educational opportunities few other female Iraqis her age do. Laylan seems like she could one day be a powerful advocate for her country. And I wish her the best.
But for Jordan Brand and their ad to suggest that she and her privileged friends are at the forefront of overcoming sexism in Iraq is too much of a stretch. The views of the assorted men interviewed on the street are not the barriers Laylan has to face. That’s not to say that she does not tackle misogynistic structures and attitudes everyday, or to assume that she is wealthy and out-of-touch. It is, however, to acknowledge that she is materially and intellectually better equipped to defeat sexism than the vast majority of women in her country.
I say this as a 20-year-old college student who grew up and attended high school in Pakistan. I know that my ability to speak (and write long opinionated articles) in English – and even my opportunity to study in this country – are part of the privileges I received are the result of being born on the fortunate end of my country's socio-economic spectrum. While I And while I try to push barriers and fight for progress, I know that my battles, my victories, are often of limited relevance for those beyond my small elite circle. For whatever reason, we just have it easier. Based on this video and some understanding of how Middle Eastern social class systems work, I can conclude that Laylan does too. We had women’s teams for every sport at my exclusive private school in Karachi. That did not mean, however, that women’s sports in Pakistan as a whole gained from every victory my female friends won on their home turf.
The Iraqi women’s basketball team story has sites like momversation.com and co.create all aflutter about hope for gender equality in the Middle East -- and, in some ways, deservingly so. These women have trained long hours to excel, they’re gaining confidence daily, according to Laylan, and their example will demonstrate to their male peers that doubting women’s equal abilities for even a second would be a mistake. In some sense, they are pushing boundaries. Videos like this one, however, are not.
Campaigns that present themselves as both inspirational and informative need to be smarter in their choice of how to cover these struggles. Give us some context, guys. Show us the real situation – not what you think we might want to see. We’ll respect you more for it.
Akbar Ahmed is a journalism intern with Campus Progress.