I’ve always liked the way advertising can work both to complement and to contrast with other elements of a composition. Advertising almost invariably portrays a perfect and airbrushed world which, in the developed world, comes closer to mirroring the context than it does in the developing world, where it all too often symbolises an unattainable dream. This is especially noticeable in India – a country in which, if you were to try to understand the society based entirely on its advertising, you would believe that everyone was comfortably middle and upper class. Of course, the simple answer is that advertising is targeted almost exclusively at the middle and upper classes – no one else can afford the products. The television ads and billboards offer an ironic and at times, ghastly contrast to the conditions prevalent on the streets.
In this photo, taken somewhere in downtown Hanoi, the hair ad is perhaps less of an anomaly compared to the status quo – after all, a nice haircut is more affordable than, say, a new kitchen, car or air conditioning unit – yet it still stands out as an ideal in the midst of a less glamorous reality. Here the contrast is not so much one of decadence and privilege versus poverty, but rather that of indulgence and comfort against pragmatism, for there is something wonderfully impractical about what the image presents to the quotidian street. What use such well-brushed hair and long luscious lashes when doing laundry and carrying kettles? It seems appropriate therefore that, whilst in this shot the L’oreal woman is prominent, in the wider context she seems almost marginalised – pushed into a corner behind scooters. Is it for this reason that her eyes are closed? Or is it that she can’t quite bear the relative banality of a backstreet in Hanoi?
The L’Oreal woman presents an image almost of piety and consolation, less offensive than more brash and “sexy” representations of the decadent lifestyle. I love the dreamy effect of the closed eyes and long lashes – an exaggeration I don’t usually find attractive, yet which seems inviting and comforting in this instance. By contrast, the facial expressions of the other women in the scene are far more engaged with real world concerns, though the lady holding the kettle has her eyes turned towards the sky, perhaps entertaining thoughts of escape – or is it just concern about the weather? Ironically, the lady whose tee-shirt reads “don’t feel small” looks pretty fed up with life, lending the message on her shirt the quality of an exhortation to herself.