Diesel is one of the most iconic denim brands in the world, rivalling G-Star, Wrangler and Levi’s for the spot at the top. Inspired by the new exhibition at Fotografiska ‘Finally It All Makes Sense”, Fashion Industry Broadcast takes a look back at a decade of famous Diesel ad campaigns that captured a moment in time and led to the rise of denim.
Founded in 1978 by Renzo Rosso, Diesel burst onto the scene with a flash of genius, betting that the style conscious, flush-with-cash youth of the Wall Street boom era would pay handsomely for jeans that were brand new but looked vintage. Diesel rose to prominence and fame off the back of its clever advertising campaign that traded on controversy to say something important about society and culture (and sell some jeans along the way). Over the course of a decade, the ad men behind Diesel proved they weren’t afraid to use race, religion and sexuality to sell a brand, nor were they afraid to position themselves against both big corporate brands and the cheesy advertising that surrounded them. This anti-establishment attitude and tongue in cheek humour formed the backbone of the brand.
How did Diesel go from a start up company in 1978 to the hottest denim brand by 2000? Advertising. Diesel occupied dizzying heights of popularity and dominated the denim brand competition in the 1990s. Their jeans were considered to be the hottest item, with many paying well over retail value in order to get their hands on a pair. Denim, once consider too casual and working class, now became sexy. Everything they touched seemed to sizzle. This dominance was forged through the partnership between Renzo Rosso and Swedish advertising gurus Johan Lindeberg and Jocke Jonason through edgy advertising agency Paradiset.
This ten year partnership birthed the most interesting advertising campaign that demonstrated blending absurdist humour with a powerful social message can transform a brand. Speaking to Dazed, Jonason commented that what they made “was provocative, funny, but also intellectual – we more or less tried to pick up on the conversation that was going on in society around us and make art of it.” It was this ability to keep their finger on the pulse of society that made this advertising campaign so vital.
In its “DIESEL FOR SUCCESSFUL LIVING” campaign from 1991-2001, the brand took a stance against corporate brands that claim they have a social conscious, and parodied the advertising of the 1950s that promoted better living through hyper consumerism. Images of beauty and glamour juxtaposed against provocative headlines that hinted at serious themes. For example? An image of an 1990s ItGirl in cut off denim shorts takes centerstage against a backdrop of triplicated images of a young man pointing a gun directly at the viewer.
The text read, “How to teach your children to love and care – MODERN CHILDREN need to SOLVE their OWN problems: teaching kids to KILL helps them deal directly with reality”, which imitates the cheesy advertising slogans of big brands and hinting at tangled issues of estrangement from youth culture and violence. In another parody of cheesy advertising slogans promoted by brands who often target women with empty feel-good platitudes, a group of very muscular and sweaty men proclaim, “thank’s Diesel, for making us so very beautiful.”
Elsewhere, Diesel takes on modern society, visually satirising concepts of entertaining, socialising and consumer culture. The brand depicts the culture clash between the old and the new, with a pair of young urbanites, stylishly dressed, looking on in disgust at a group of overweight old men digging into their fine dining of McDonalds burgers and chips. If Diesel appears to be depicting a divide between old and new cultures, this is only even more clearly highlighted in another ad featuring a familiar scene of a funeral with an interesting sartorial twist.
Our group of family members (wealthy, upperclass) look into a lavish coffin that features a man wearing not the dress shoes you may expect, but Diesel sneakers. Expressions of curiosity, surprise and judgement dot the faces of the family members as they (and the minister) are confronted by this statement of individuality and rebellion. This clash in generations features in many of Diesel’s ad campaigns of this time, drawing in the Generation Y by positioning them as different and seperate from previous generations.
Meanwhile, in a spoof of old society-style lavish dining parties, our modern gal is dressed head to toe in denim, and is the hostess with the mostest to a group of pigs, who are are sitting on fancy gold chairs, and are feasting on one of their own. The caption, “We welcome 1995. The year of good luck, great taste and friendship” has a heavy dose of ironic humour. Another ad to use the juxtaposition between animals and young trendy consumers shows apes in green shorts on the steps of a historical building, clamouring for approval or attention from passerbys. The apes are oddly reminiscent of images from historical rallies, once again flirting with the idea of a gap between the past and the present.
The next Diesel ad doesn’t so much as flirt as aggressively announce that Diesel intended on driving conversation over otherwise undepicted topics. The image of two gay American sailors celebrating the end of WWII continues the theme of clashing the past with the current. Not just merely provocative, it shows the intersection between fashion and society. If the ad makers wanted to take on sex and politics in fashion, racial issues gets a similar treatment.
The 2001 ad campaign features a fictitious newspaper, The Daily African. Black models in Diesel jeans can be found lounging around in limos or sprawled across expensive office mahogany desks as headlines claim African supremacy, (“African Expedition to Explore Unknown Europe by foot” or “European developing countries targeted by African tobacco industry”). This reversal of the world order captures a moment in time that questioned the past and challenged exisiting societal norms.
Sex and race weren’t the only targets of Diesel’s advertising campaigns. In another ad, Diesel takes aim at religion and the role religion has historically played in war or conflicts. In this ad, Diesel claims its sunglasses are a “significant contribution to World Peace” and that they are ‘reality blockers’ that “protect even the most sensitive eyes from harmful or unpleasant facts”. Of course, the backdrop of religious leaders in the Arab desert satirises the position many religious leaders take of blindness and ignorance when it comes to conflict. Reality denying indeed.
Elsewhere in the Diesel Historical Moments series, the playful and humorous take on historical events continues. A black man clad in denim dives neatly into a pool labelled ‘whites only’ in an apartheid-divided South Africa, while white sunbathers look on in horror. An absurdist fictional take on the future of the world after the moon landing is paired with an image of a young family around a messy kitchen. “Birth of the Modern Conference, Yalta, 1945” takes a historical event and treats it as a guide for entertaining.
The “DIESEL FOR SUCCESSFUL LIVING” ad campaign made advertising history, and captured the zeitgeist of a moment and generation that wanted to question sex, race and historical issues as well as its relationship to the generations that had come before. The mix of absurd graphics or text that often seemed to feature denim almost incidentally, took a satirical approach to important statements about society, but also challenged big brands and consumer forecasters.
This appeal to the iconoclastic beliefs of a generation that was brand conscious, but also socially conscious and captured something bubbling under the surface. Although Diesel no longer has the dominant share of cultural cache it enjoyed in the 1990s and early 2000s, a look back at its advertising sheds an interesting light on how it rose to prominence. Perhaps in this culturally sensitive and tumultuous time, we can learn something from Diesel.
To read more about Renzo Rosso and Diesel’s interesting history, check out FIB’s Masters of Fashion Vol 33, available now from Amazon and all good book stores.