Subversion as a selling point?

A columnist known as a harsh critic of capitalism and the police is one of the faces of a new ad campaign for one of Berlin’s most iconic department stores. Not everyone thinks it's a good look.

Columnist Hengameh Yaghoobifarah (second left) is one of the atypical models recruited by KaDeWe - seemingly to embody "diversity" for its autumn campaign.
Columnist Hengameh Yaghoobifarah (second left) is one of the atypical models recruited by KaDeWe - seemingly to embody "diversity" for its autumn campaign.Facebook / KaDeWe

Berlin-Hengameh Yaghoobifarah always likes to surprise – and has just been revealed as part of a campaign that certainly delivers on that front. The columnist for the left-wing Tageszeitung (taz) newspaper, who is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns, can currently be seen on a larger-than-life poster in a display window at KaDeWe on Tauentzienstraße – aka Kaufhaus des Westens, Europe’s second largest department store after Harrods in London and a symbol of Western prosperity during the Cold War.

In the new ad campaign, they wear a leather coat from the luxury brand Marni costing €3,900, and ankle boots worth €459. Yes, really: the anti-capitalist columnist is part of an advertising campaign for Berlin’s most luxurious department store, alongside a row of others who probably can’t afford the seriously expensive trousers, waistcoats and boots they’re posing in.

Most importantly, all the models in the campaign sum up what we refer to when we use the term “diverse”, bringing with them experiences like immigrant backgrounds or diverse sexual identities. Some of them are just a bit older than the typical fashion model. Pictured alongside Yaghoobifarah, who has Iranian roots, are Berlin activist Aaliyah Adeyemi – who describes herself on Instagram as a “Black Revolutionary and a Pan-Africanist” – and student Kieu My Le. The campaign elevates these people, with experiences of discrimination behind them, into the glamour of the fashion world. Their diverse identities have become a marketing tool.

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Police "astonished" by campaign

So far the campaign has already proved provocative. Yagoobifarah is the main focus of the controversy, having written a taz column in June in which they discussed what careers former police officers might pursue if the force was abolished – and was seen by some to make a literal comparison between police and household waste. Even before that they have been no stranger to controversy, with another column accusing the “white audience” of Germany’s Fusion Festival (sometimes called Europe's answer to Burning Man) of racism and cultural appropriation – and facing such accusations themselves after referring to Germans as Kartoffeln (potatoes).

But it was the police column, which emerged in the context of the international Black Lives Matter movement, that caused waves in some of the highest echelons of power in Germany. Interior minister Horst Seehofer found the piece offensive to the institution of the police force and wanted to press charges – but stepped back from the idea after he himself faced criticism for what some saw as attacks on press freedom.

In the column, which bore the title “All cops are berufsunfähig (unfit for work)”, Yagoobifarah wrote: “If the police is abolished, but capitalism isn’t, what other fields can we actually let the ex-cops into?” They answered their own question: “I’ve just come up with the perfect solution: rubbish disposal. Not as refuse collectors with keys to people’s houses, but rather on the scrap heap, where they’ll really only be surrounded by trash. They’ll surely feel best among their own company.”

The first people to pounce on the campaign like a piece of fresh roadkill were right-wingers. Benjamin Jendro, spokesperson for the Berlin Police Union, told the conservative newspaper Junge Freiheit: “It is astonishing that someone who has always presented themselves as an anti-capitalist is now modelling for KaDeWe.” He said store bosses ought to ask themselves whether there might be police officers who like shopping with them.

The tabloid newspaper BZ said KaDeWe employees were embarrassed by the campaign. Something of a social media “shitstorm” (as Germans love to say) has ensued – Facebook users commenting on KaDeWe’s posts about the campaign called it “extremely repulsive”, “inhuman” and “left-wing fascist” for its inclusion of a “police hater”, another wrote: “I hope you will experience lots, lots of crime.”

But Yaghoobifarah sees their participation in the campaign as an act of subversion. Defenders of their column on abolishing the police argued that it embodied a justifiable anger within the BLM context, or that it was clearly satirical. Is the columnist trying to do the same thing here?

Posting about the new ads on Instagram, they wrote that “not even luxury department stores are a safe space from communist propaganda nowadays”. That’s made clear through the quote Alles allen (“everything for everyone”) which the campaign features alongside Yaghoobifarah’s image. “Luxury is great, so long as everyone can have it,” they add in a video clip for the campaign. Their intention is to use capitalism as a means to criticise it.

But it’s hard to say who’s using who for their own ends here – the provocative advertisers, or Yaghoobifarah with their criticisms of capitalism and the other models, who perhaps just want to see themselves represented at all levels of society. Another quote featured online as part of the KaDeWe campaign reads Luxus ist die Möglichkeit, sich selbst verwirklichen zu können (“luxury is the ability to fully be yourself”). The campaign’s inclusion of a number of activists, who campaign for worthy causes like racial justice and gender equality and in artily shot clips for the campaign discuss the meaning of topics like diversity, individuality and luxury, almost feels like jumping on a bandwagon.

In the end, Yagoobifarah and co come across a bit like rappers who drench themselves in luxury products and sing their praises, but still don’t see themselves as part of that world – instead bringing objects from it into their own world. Gucci flip flops here, Versace there, a Rolex on an underdog’s wrist. You might call it cultural appropriation. But brands profit from it too – ultimately, it’s still advertising. Perhaps getting one over on capitalism isn’t that easy after all.