THE BLOG
18/07/2013 08:25 BST | Updated 16/09/2013 06:12 BST

Eastern Promise

Getty

Reappropriation is usually understood as the cultural process by which a group (usually those dominant within society) reclaim ideas or terms which were previously used in a way that disparaged of the 'other'. In other words, those dominant groups salvage the cultural stereotypes, racial connotations, the sexist slurs and so forth in an attempt to soften their appearance to the viewer; shake off the offensive crumbs and pass it off as original.

One of the largest platforms in which this process is given free will is of course, the advertising industry. They're like a mini Hollywood: a touch of whitewash here, silky straight hair here and we're good to go. We don't want to scare the viewers off with some coiled curls, or heaven forbid a black actor who isn't just the side kick.

Upon flicking through the television, one recent advert caught my eye. The advert is for the Herbal Essences shampoo range, featuring their prized possession and spokeswoman Nicole Scherzinger. To the average white British viewer (who make up around 42 million of the British population), this advert would be nothing more but another splendour of an exotic woman and jangling music, dark musky hair flowing and those mysterious eyes of the orient playing up to the audience. For myself however, all I saw was a non Middle Eastern or North African woman, appropriating my culture, dancing to the music of my culture, and then ends it by winning the respect and bows of what look like to be Romans (I don't know which order history was taught to the Herbal Essences team).

In this tropical world, Scherzinger is transported to what seems a Middle Eastern or Moorish place, filled with tonnes of gold (stereotype number one). Throughout the advert, the viewer sees multiple sexual images (stereotype two: the belly-dancer, the veiled performer). There is an air of royalty behind the whole scene: Scherzinger is surrounded by men who produce the shampoo on a golden plate to her. The scene finally advocates what it is selling: the shampoo. Scherzinger is seen to lie down while shampoo is massaged into her hair. I can't fault them on that segment. She then puts her hair up (that Arab heat) and secures it with a honeycomb. As she floats through the mosaic laden Andalus style garden, two men (those Spartans) are quick to stop their brawl and ogle at the crème de la crème finale of all adverts: Scherzinger releasing her flowing locks. "It makes them weak in the knees" apparently.

The West has always had a history of stereotyping life in the "East", and that is portrayed verbatim in this advert. As Edward Said explains in one of his most famous texts Orientalism, these images produced by such adverts provide a rationalization for European colonialism, based on a self-serving history in which "the West" constructed "the East" as extremely different and inferior, and therefore in need of Western intervention or "rescue". The East is ogled at and fetishised.

The Middle Eastern inspired music compliments the luxurious surrounding and the tonnes of gold laid out. With songs such as "Arab Money" by Busta Rhymes and rappers alluding to being "out in Abu Dhabi", this advert comes at no surprise either. These visual signs of wealth and extravagance tie in neatly to the typecast, through their repeated use in fiction and art. The average viewer unconsciously interprets what they are viewing, connecting the signifier of Arabic music, with the signified Middle Eastern or North African region as a whole.

The scene of the two men fighting plays further on the stereotype: barbarous males, fighting and lusting for the prize that is Nicole Scherzinger. What is interesting about the advert is that the shampoo really has nothing to do with the Middle East ("Honey I'm Strong") and none of the actors are of Middle Eastern or North African descent. Typical of reappropriation, the ethnic group who should be representing themselves are instead systematically written out, erased, silenced and marginalized in any mainstream picture of the West. Interestingly however, is the fact that Scherzinger was used as the protagonist: she is clearly not your average blue eyed blonde haired damsel, yet she is a safe wedge in the hopes of creating some authenticity, but not so much as to scare the audience away.

By putting a Middle Eastern woman in the place of Nicole, the advert would no longer be about the target western women and her experience. Instead, it would (heaven forbid) be about a Middle Eastern woman's experience with the hair product. The advert sadly works because she is an easily recognisable face, thus redirecting the attention away from the stereotype, and onto Scherzinger instead.

The deletion of any involvement of a women of a Middle Eastern or North African background is distressing on many levels. As a viewer, I am able to see that the advertising industry, even with the incline of multiculturalism, still do not recognise minority groups in many forms. Yes Scherzinger looks beautiful: but why not use one of the very familiar faces of the Arab world who would have done just as good a job? The worldwide appeal is too much for the western promoters to risk.

One could write a novel about ethnocentrism and the way it has infected society. It is saddening to think that the colonialist mentality is still alive in the hearts of the mass media.