Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Darfur Olympics

Advertisement: Saatchi & Saatchi, Brussels | Photo: the sceptical futuryst

This newspaper advertisement, featuring a hypothetical "Darfur 2020" Olympic flag, has been at the centre of a recent controversy in Belgium. It's an ad for the University of Ghent, and the Flemish (Dutch) slogan "Durf Denken" means "Dare to Think".

The Darfur region in Western Sudan has been riven by conflict and humanitarian crisis for the past five years, so the incongruity of the ongoing tragedy with the presumably sunny prospect of Olympic candidacy not far in the future deliberately evokes a kind of cognitive dissonance in the reader in early 02008.

The International Olympic Committee requested that the university pull the ad on the grounds that the use of the trademarked olympic rings is forbidden. As yet, there seems to have been virtually no English-language coverage of the story, but here's one report from Radio Netherlands Worldwide; and one from weekly news magazine Flanders Today.

The Brussels office of advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi, which produced the piece, defended itself at the company blog (posted March 5th):

We presented the ad above to the Communication committee of the university in the beginning of December 2007, after a check with the BOIC [Belgian Olympic Committee] who told us we would be allowed to use them in this context. The campaign never intended to be a political statement, but it sure is one way to view the ad.

For the record, that's what we've been trying to do with all the ads for the University of Ghent from the beginning: invite people to start thinking. In this case, the ad raises several questions: will the world be changed by 2020? how would you start organising such a thing? what is the role of sports in global politics?...
It is true that the whole commotion surrounding Steven Spielberg and the role of China (as the host country) in the african conflict became hot news at a certain point (culminating in the heading 'Breng de Olympische droom naar Darfur' -transl. bring the Olympic dream to Darfur- in De Morgen on the 15th of February). But as we did not see it grow into a bigger issue we decided to publish the campaign anyway.

And while we can understand the IOC's decision to ask the University to withdraw the campaign (even though we had permission from the BOIC), we don't agree with the allegations that we capitalise on a small political event to use in a campaign for a client which steadfastly allows us to make great work for a fantastic brand.

Radio Netherlands Worldwide reports:

University rector Paul Van Cauwenberghe insists: "It's all a big misunderstanding. We never intended to offend anyone ... All we wanted to do with our posters was to get students thinking ... And it looks like we achieved our objective."

For my part, I think it's a brilliant bit of artwork. Also, as a piece of advertising, I find it entirely appropriate to the client/subject -- a state university -- an institution which properly ought to engage its public in grappling with provocative ideas, continually. (A purely commercial entity could more understandably be accused of poor taste or political insensitivity.)

Now, clearly the ads are intended to be mildly disruptive or arresting. If they didn't contain any sort of edginess or risk, the phrase "Dare to Think" wouldn't mean anything.

But how disturbed should we find the Olympic Committee's choice to police its intellectual property in this manner? As my colleague Jake "Neurofutures" Dunagan might point out, patrolling IP in this context is effectively policing thought. Which is insidious enough in any form, but the stakes somehow come out in sharper relief when it comes to curtailing expressions of possible futures. It could be said that the IOC, in exercising its copyright-holders' veto, is literally curtailing the public's ability to imagine a future in which a now-conflicted region turns things around to the extent of becoming Olympics-ready. Regardless of what might be added about the probably feeble motives of the Committee in doing so, and whether or not permission had already been granted by the IOC's Belgian arm; the point stands. This situation is structured such that IP obstructs, rather than facilitates, the public interest in free expression.

One observer has argued, as reported here, that the University of Ghent's usage of the olympic rings logo in this case probably qualifies for the "fair use" exception to the copyright holder's dominion (and if this were to prove correct, the university could have insisted on its rights and refused to withdraw the ad). In any event, to my mind this situation really crystallises what's at stake in the distinction Lawrence Lessig draws between "permission culture" and "free culture". The withdrawal of the ad is a symptom of a permission culture, in which a public intellectual institution that is trying to encourage its constituents to think unusual thoughts is itself cowed into backing off from its own mandate.

To pull the ad is a direct negation of its message. Dare to Think, indeed.

Some of the other ads produced for the campaign (which has been running for several years), mentioned in the advertisers' blog above, have functioned very similarly to futures (or counterfactual) artifacts. Some of these visual thought experiments also -- again, appropriately, in my view -- press political buttons...

Some of these strike me as even less likely to pass muster in the United States than in Belgium. And yet: these are precisely the kinds of ridiculous thoughts which comprise the essence of useful, provocative futures thinking.

My hat goes off to Saatchi & Saatchi for this piece of work. It would be great to see the University of Ghent insist on its right to proceed with the campaign; but failing that, to hear the International Olympic Committee explain its trepidation about lending its logo to a region of the world whose futures desperately need to be reimagined.

(The ad was published in a Belgian daily newspaper, De Morgen, on 3 March, p. 7. It was spotted -- and thoughtfully delivered to me in person! -- by Belgian futurist Maya van Leemput, who just visited Hawaii. Dank u, Maya!)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

great post stuart...i will "durf denken" about this some more for certain...