The Art of the Non-apology

by Angela

The Edmonton based hair salon Fluid is getting a lot of publicity lately because of its distasteful ad depicting a woman with a black eye and the slogan “Look Good In All You Do.” (See the ad here, trigger warning: domestic violence).

The ad shows an obvious lapse in judgement for anyone who cares about other people and doesn’t want to trivialize their negative experiences by making it a selling point in a beauty ad (or any other ad for that matter!) What is so disappointing is the pathetic “we’re sorry you’re offended” response by Fluid that passes for an apology these days.

The fact is most of us are probably guilty of a lapse in judgement at one time or another and usually we learn by having the harmfulness of these mistakes pointed out to us. The value of a prepared public apology is that there’s time to get over the defensive knee-jerk reaction which often accompanies someone pointing out that what we’ve done is wrong. That is why the public “apology” by Fluid is so disappointing. They actually had time to think about what people were saying and still couldn’t find it in themselves to admit that maybe trivializing and glamourizing domestic violence isn’t the best way to sell a beauty product.

They start off by pointing out that they “respect everyone’s right to their interpretation of what they perceive the message to be.” Well, I’m glad that they’re telling me that I’m free to interpret my perception of the message but I guess I’m not free to actually interpret the message?

They then bungle their way through an attempt to claim both that they’re selling a product and that they’re creating “art”:

“similar to music videos, works of art, media, books, the ads were our interpretation of a particular “art form” – we are a Hair and Beauty Salon – our business is to make people “LOOK GOOD”. Is it cutting edge advertising? Yes. Is it intended to be a satirical look at real life situations that ignites conversation and debate? Of course.  Is it to everyone’s taste? Probably not.”

First of all, I think it’s telling that they put “art form” in quotation marks. It’s like they know that what they’re saying is bullshit but they just have to say it anyway.

Secondly, I’m glad they point out that their business is to “make people “LOOK GOOD”” because it seems to me this is precisely the problem. A charitable reading of Fluid’s idea of “Looking Good” is that as long as a woman’s got awesome hair she looks good and that makes the black eye okay. A less charitable reading is that she looks good because she has great hair and a black eye. Neither of those are positive messages to promote and it is really difficult to see how this could be interpreted in any other way. This is what it means to glamourize violence.

But of course it’s art and that makes it all okay because it’s satirical. The thing is there’s a difference between commercial art and fine art, namely, the context in which it is viewed. Fine art is often read as being challenging and so, for better or worse, it is viewed as a challenge of some sort, be it aesthetic, social or something else altogether. Commercial art is not often viewed in this context. Its aim is to sell a product and doing so often involves making the product look as attractive as possible. While it is possible to challenge social norms in commercial art, it takes someone really skilled to do so. There has to be something to indicate that the norm being challenged is somehow wrong or offensive. An ad that challenges racism, for instance, has to show that racism is bad. Otherwise it’s simply perpetuating racism whether you want to call it art or not. In this case, there’s no clear indication that we’re supposed to view domestic violence as bad.

It might seem to the creators of this ad that domestic violence is so obviously wrong that they don’t need to point it out but the fact is that it’s still a huge social problem and, therefore, not obvious to a lot of people. And if Fluid did think it was obvious they wouldn’t be claiming that they were trying to “ignite conversations and debate” as there would be no need for it. Judging by their surprise at people’s responses it seems that this is not the debate they wanted to have which leaves me wondering what the debate was that they were expecting. Maybe something like: “this ad is so awesome because her hair looks totally hot!” “No way, it’s the clothes that make her look totally hot!” ?

The next part of Fluid’s response is just embarrassing:

“Edmonton is presently the murder capital of Canada.  Media’s energy and time may be better spent boycotting dangerous areas, gangs, guns, other street weapons, or a sick justice system, which unfortunately is still sadly lacking when it comes to punishing abusers or any kind.”

See, Fluid cares about justice and punishing abusers too, particularly in cases where it gets the media off their backs. The amazing thing about the media though is that it can do all those things at the same time since “the media” is not just one person or one organization. And attempting to shame people by making it seem that anyone outraged by Fluid’s glamourization of domestic violence is giving a free pass to murderers and a troublesome justice system is, in itself, shameful.

Finally, we get to the core of the non-apology apology:

“If survivors of abuse interpret this ad to make light of any abusive situation, we sincerely apologize, that was never our intent as there are people that worked on this campaign who are survivors of abuse.”

How about just an apology. We’re sorry that this ad makes light of an abusive situation. It was an error in judgement and we’ll never do it again. Instead we get what reads like a sorry-you’re-so-easily-offended apology. The implication is that it’s a failure on the part of those interpreting the ad that they don’t read Fluid’s good intentions into it. Yet, any artist worth their salt will tell you that if everyone “misinterprets” the message, the artist has failed, not the audience.

They end off with this zinger:

“Media genre that promotes freedom of speech and expression only for themselves are hypocritical.  Please interpret the ad as freedom dictates – that is your right – just as artistic expression is our right.”

While I wouldn’t want to say that they don’t have the right to express themselves as they’ve chosen to, I would say that doing so should be viewed as an error in judgement. Sadly, that seems to be the one way in which Fluid is unwilling to view their ad.