Hey Air France, your Orientalism is in the air | #FixedIt4UAF @AirFrance

April 4, 2014
Air France is selling their new routes with an ad campaign featuring White women in cultural drag.
Air France has launched a new ad campaign featuring White women in cultural drag.

(H/T to Jeff Yang (@originalspin) for notifying me of this campaign)

Bonjour, Air France!

I’ve never ridden your airplanes because I don’t live in France. But, I hear you fly to lots of other countries, too — like Japan, China and parts of the US. So, maybe, some day, I’ll be contemplating booking a flight on your carrier.

Except, I also see you’re being kinda Orientalist, right now.

So, maybe not.


See, you just launched a new ad campaign, called “France is in the Air“, and you’re really excited that this ad campaign will be released in 12 countries, as well as through the Internet and on social media. Your website tells me that in addition to 6 “visuals” that will tell me about all the awesome features of your airplanes (like gastronomy), your ad campaign also “is supplemented by 12 visuals depicting iconic destinations served by Air France (Paris, New York, Brazil, China, Japan, Africa, Italy, etc).”

12 visuals depicting 12 iconic destinations that you’ll be plastering all over those exact same 12 countries? How exciting! (Please note also that Africa is a continent, not a country.)

If only you hadn’t ended up with an ad campaign that actually features (mostly) White women wearing stereotypical racial and cultural drag to depict all those exotic non-Westernized countries.

How positively, fetishistically Orientalist.

Take a quick peek at that visual you created to advertise your presence in Tokyo. Compared to the smiling, humanized ‘Parisian’ woman in a beret (which, incidentally, is about as “iconically French” as an ironic hipster, these days), the Tokyo visual features a pouting angry White woman who looks like she stepped off the set of Memoirs of a Geisha. Or, she might be Katy Perry’s under-study.

Or, look at what you did to this model in trying to depict your flights to Beijing.


To sell Air France to my people, you show me a picture of a woman wearing yellowface makeup to mimic the shape of my Asiatic eye, and looking fiercely off-camera as she triumphantly mounts the mutilated carcass of my Chinese culture on her head like a gruesome, blood-soaked trophy.

I understand that you just want to tell your customers that you fly to exotic locales. But, the problem here, is that the portrayal of the exotic locales you cater to — and the cultures that call these locales home — have been flattened in your ad campaign into a sensationalized, fictionalized, dragon lady caricature of our culture; and, one that is largely the invention of your imagination. In fact, it bears very little resemblance to me and my people.

It’s clear that your ad campaign may be running in the countries of my people, but you’re not actually trying to sell Air France to my people.

You’re trying to sell my people to your people.

And, whereas you gleefully grabbed at the low-hanging Orientalist yellowface fruit for your depictions of China and Japan, you were perfectly happy to offer more sophisticated and nuanced imagery for your depictions of countries that, I suppose, are more culturally familiar to you.

I mean, by the logic of your own ad campaign, the “Tokyo” model has about as much business being in a geisha costume as the “Paris” woman should be wearing the pasty white face-paint and black-and-white sweater of a French mime.


The rest of your campaign also raises some more questions with me.

I mean, according to your ad campaign, the iconic cultural costume of South America is dressing up like a parrot furry?


And, also, what the heck were you thinking when you thought this was going to be an “iconic” image representing the diasporic African experience?


And, finally, while I’m really grateful that you actually did decide to include a beautiful Black model in your campaign, what exactly about a picture of her standing in front of some “urban graffiti” makes her representative of New York City?


How is the message of this visual not: “Fly to New York and meet your first sassy Black woman!”?

Look, I get it. It’s hard in this day-and-age of cheap airfare and sardine-can travelling to make the flying experience sexy. We all miss the long-gone excitement of flying: that once-magical feeling of boarding an airplane to the enthusiastic smiles of air stewards; settling into a cushy seat that doesn’t smell of half-digested baby food and that offers at least 4 inches of elbow space between yourself and your fellow traveling companions; pushing your seat back and flipping through an in-flight magazine that has pages not sticky with something unimaginable; ripping open a bag generously stuffed with pretzels and wasabi peanuts, and washing it all down with a soda that’s actually complimentary; sticking your earbuds in to listen to your iPod because you earnestly want to, and not to tune out the incessant wailing of the two small children behind you who’re fussy because they missed nap time having just spent an hour being jostled by their frazzled parents through security like cattle;  and closing your eyes to imagine all the wonderful adventures you’ll have in the foreign landscape of your destination.

I get that no one really wants to fly any more, and you want to make it cool again. But must you use and misuse the cultures of other people to do it?

Next time I contemplate traveling Air France, I’ll definitely be thinking about looking elsewhere; maybe at an airline that doesn’t treat my culture like it’s a costume.

Act Now! Jeff Yang is inviting folks to helpfully submit their fixes to this ad campaign (grab your own template, .psd). Here are his:





Please submit your own in the comments section or tweet them to #FixedIt4UAF and @AirFrance!

Update: Twitter user @PolytheneLucy reminds us that Air France actually has a history of abusive behaviour targeting its Asian customers.

Update II:  This is their response, so far, as sent to Twitter user @PolytheneLucy.


32 thoughts on “Hey Air France, your Orientalism is in the air | #FixedIt4UAF @AirFrance

  1. at some point you have to realize that there are actual injustices and terrible things happening in the world. Yes, this campaign treats certain cultures as stereotypes in order to sell a product (which is wrong), but instead of blogging about some ad campaign from the comfort of your computer, maybe you should try actually making the world a better place. “Politically correct” posts like these are just to make people feel better about themselves and convince themselves that they are “activists”

  2. Comments like James’s are so frustrating. We are not Politically correct. You gloss over racism be cause it’s it not physically oppressive . Enjoy your privileged life in your tower Repunzel. Anyway…Thank you for this post.

  3. @james: Every minute you take to rail against politically correct activists takes away from your worshipping at Rush Limbaugh’s altar. Thanks for your sacrifice.

  4. See, this is why Asians fail at the media propaganda wars. AirFrance puts out offensive images of cultural appropriation of Asians and all Jeff Yang can do is fix the Japanese stereotypes?

    A more logical response would be something like this:

    I don’t have twitter (and probably never will sound like tweety bird), so if somebody can retweet it please as from MM.com #FixedIt4UAF

  5. I meant: all Jeff Yang can do is keep pushing Asian stereotypes in the Occidental media?

  6. @Crazy, I actually loved your version and am appreciating others who are also creating new ones for the France poster. I tweeted yours to the hashtag.

  7. Don’t have the Photoshop skills to pull this off, but i thought something like this would be a good fix for the air France campaign:

  8. “Paris, New York, Brazil, China, Japan, Africa, Italy, etc”

    All of those are either specific cities or countries, except Africa which is an entire continent. I appreciate that you’re offended by Air France’s ill-planned ad campaign, but do realize even very slight racism seems to permeate through everything. Might I suggest you actually say “Dakar” or “Senegal” instead of the entire continent of Africa.

  9. Anonymous,

    Thank you for your comment.

    Please note that in that first paragraph, I alternately parapharase and quote from from Air France, and that the list of destinations you pulled was from the Air France website where they decided to refer to their African destinations by the homogenizing, generalizing term “Africa” rather than choosing to specify a country. This is why when we get to the Dakar poster, I pointedly ask why this poster is supposed to represent the entire African diasporic experience? However, in order to emphasize the point, I have added a line above noting the strange switch to referencing the entire continent of Africa alongside a bunch of countries.

  10. @Jenn, thanks for finally agreeing with me. lol

    In all seriousness, other than being indignant at the fact that white mainstream media think they can easily mock Asians and other minority groups, at some point money talks louder. ;)

  11. But your profile picture in itself is an stereotype of asians (cosplayers) am I missing something here?

    I find this as an asian really flattering that iconic pieces of my culture serve the purpose of inviting people to visit my country and see for themselves our vast and deep image and iconic legacy in history and to see the beauty of my country, having artists being inspired by these and creating beautiful images by many of our most iconic pieces, etc. They aren’t mocking anyone here… So if I cosplay as a Geisha character in a manga/anime con would I be mocking my country’s legacy?

    As an asian descendant (chinese/japanese) I don’t find this offensive, as I don’t find offensive the stereotype of a fellow asian girl doing cosplay doing the peace sign with her fingers and proudly showing it as her profile pic.

  12. Hi Karlie,

    Thanks for your comment, and yes, I do think you’re missing something here. Are you familiar with the concept of Orientalism? I would suggest you read up on it — there is a significant difference between the geisha/chinese lion imagery of the advertising and cosplay (and cosplay of an American comic book figure, for that matter). This isn’t really about people being inspired by our iconography; it is about a long history of non-Asian cultures appropriating a fictional, exaggerated interpretation of our iconography to redefine Asia as a land of exoticism — an exoticism stands as a perpetual counterpoint to Western ideals of the “norm”.

    And as for my profile pic, I’m unaware of any Orientalism associated with cosplay, since that is a modern invention of the last twenty years, and we are talking about an appropriative social phenomenon that has been ongoing since Marco Polo and the Silk Road. Further, it’s actually a Halloween costume, and I’m not doing the “Asian peace sign” since my hand is turned the other way. If you’re gonna try to make me feel bad in a weird kind of personal attack, please try again.

  13. So if I don’t agree with your comment then I’m attacking you? WOW well then I’m not going to say much more but I would urge to read “Identity Crisis: Cosplay as Cultural Hybridization” (you can find it online)

    Halloween or not, hand turned the other way or not, you are doing an orientalism too dear (asians are geeky cosplayers who use costumes from their favorite animes and comics characters all the time) you should measure yourself with the same rule you use to measure others.

    It is weird though, in Japan nor China people don’t mind at all this kind of stuff,

    I hope you understand that having different opinion is not attacking you
    have a great day

    xoxo peace

  14. Hi Karlie,

    Thanks again for your comment. Again, I suggest you take a peek at the definition of Orientalism; there is zero relationship between Orientalism and Halloween (which again, I reiterate, is what I am wearing in my profile pic). This — “asians are geeky cosplayers who use costumes from their favorite animes and comics characters all the time” — may be a stereotype, but one that is both of little relevance to the European practice of putting together a Halloween costume to emulate a character from Western comic books on the European/pagan holiday of Halloween, and which is also of little relevance to Orientalism.

    I am happy to have a conversation with you on Orientalism, and how this campaign perpetuates it. But, other than a rather bizarre and ill-informed ad hominem attack strategy, I’m not sure why exactly you are focusing on my profile picture and what point you are trying to make here.

  15. Jenn,
    I do hope that in your puritanical moralizing, you find time to “forgive” the folks who “inflicted” this “racism” on “your people.” Yes Orientalism exists, and yes, it is annoying and dehumanizing, but you really need to stop and consider if you are not “dehumanizing” all those people you perceive as having slighted you and your race – however you define that. I’m sure you hate the musical “Avenue Q” and its song “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” but it contains a whole lot of fundamental truth. People make decisions and prejudge based on appearance. It’s a nuisance and an annoyance. It means your are going to have to work harder to overcome people’s preconceptions about you. Racism is something much darker and consequential than that. Racism is the fundamental belief of the superiority of one race of people over another, and it manifests itself in some very horrible ways. When I lived in Japan, as a white person (and therefore prohibited from commenting on racism, because hey, all white people are racist), I experienced people making a great number of assumptions about me based on my appearance, some positive, some negative, none based in truth. I too indulged myself in feeling self-righteous that others were profiling me based on assumptions made about my race and not taking the time to get to know me and learning that most of their assumptions were false. Asian Americans (and, from the little that I know, Canadians of Asian descent) have made amazing advancements – in the 1800s, Chinese workers were so demeaned by their white employers that they were horribly mistreated and often injured or killed in the process of building the transcontinental railroad. Racial violence of whites on Asians was a real thing, and there were several violent attacks on Chinese and other Asians mostly for not being white. Today, these types of events are unthinkable. Racial violence by seriously marginal and disturbed individuals is not unthinkable, sadly, but society turning a blind eye to it most definitely is. In the United States, open discrimination is taboo. Invisible discrimination still occurs and the reality is that the only way we could get rid of that would be far worse than living with bigots – it would require the constant monitoring of our thoughts and actions by an Orwellian government.

    Your blog is an excellent example of a level of freedom of speech unthinkable in the past. Through it, your opinions may now be viewed by potentially millions of people, and no one should attempt to take that right away. However I will not be one of them, because I find nothing useful, positive or productive in your writings. I do wish you continued success, and I hope that as you mature, you will find that tolerance isn’t just something others should have, and that most of what you highlight here you could just have easily shrugged your shoulders and gone on with your life unchanged. Most of what you highlight are misguided attempts by others to show their confused and uninformed admiration for “Asian” culture (which in of itself is ridiculous – there is no one “Asian” culture as there is no one “European” or “African” culture). The point is, nobody is depriving you of life, liberty or property through these actions. They might annoy you – hell, they annoy me – but a world where people cannot speak their thoughts or ideas because others find them annoying is infinitely worse.

  16. @Nobody,

    I’m not sure that it makes sense to tell a person of colour they should be thankful to White people for the freedom of speech that allows that person of colour to call out questionable acts, and in so doing discourage that person of colour from speaking freely because “things could be so much worse”. Of course this country has far progressed past the 1800’s; that does not excuse ongoing racism of today nor should it preclude someone from pointing those things out.

    By the way, I am not the kind of anti-racist activist who thinks White people shouldn’t have an opinion on race. I do however think that White people have the responsibility to have a meaningful and thoughtful position on race; I do not think that telling folks that “at least you’re not getting blown up on the transcontinental railroad” is really a meaningful or thoughtful position on race.

  17. The real racism is: only White girl can play White characters, only Black girl can play Black characters, only Yellow girl can play Yellow characters.

    Would it be racist to have a Japanese girl dressed in a French typicall outfit?

  18. Pff Jenn if I see racism somewhere here, it’s from you! What I see in these picture is people who like their trip and the dress up just reflect their own state of mind… And by the way if be dress in traditional japanese outfit it’s racist for you, so japan/manga convention is racist, sushi restaurant is racist (cause i guess for you it transmit cullinary cliché) … do you see how it’s sound stupid and by extension how you are!
    I don’t know why you have hatred for AirFrance, maybe one flight didn’t go well.. or else, I don’t care, but I can assure you that their campain is not racist, but some of your detournment are!

  19. Jenn,
    I am so sorry for these people apologizing for racism. I, personally, do believe that white people must step back from the conversation on race, as we are from a privileged place and therefore could not understand, no matter how much we study, how racism affects PoC. I think your article was fantastic, and to the commenter who said that Jeff Yang’s idea was also perpetuating racist stereotypes: That’s the point! It’s equally as ridiculous to put a white model in a costume of Godzilla to represent Japan as it is to put her in this poorly put-together Geisha costume.
    But I know you know all of this.
    Thank you for the article. I hope some people have been enlightened by it.

  20. I’m Italian and I can positively confirm that there are no half naked women standing in bushes waiting for tourists over here, so I am at a loss as to why that should be typical of my country.
    I would imagine that a picture of our beautiful sea, or mountain resorts, or Tuscan countryside, or a nice meal, or Pompeii, Florence, Rome, Venice, might all be more interesting and typical than ‘random half naked woman in a bush’.

  21. For a start, pardon me if my english is not correct as i am not a native english speaker.

    What everyone forgets here, it seems, is that humans are ALL from the same unique race. There is only one and unique human race. The color does not matter. The race is one and only.

    The fact that red, black or yellow people have been victims of racism in earlier days, or still are nowadays, does not imply that white people in their globality have any collective responsability and should excuse to be white in the end.

    I have two major problems in my life : i am white AND i am a male. When i hear some people speak today, even these simple two facts are nearly a mistake. Naturally born mistake. As it was 45 years ago in this country you live in dear Jenn, when you were black.

    Just to refresh your memory, Martin Luther King was murdered in 1968 just because he wanted black and white people to be considered as equal.

    I do not consider I have any responsability to endorse for my entire life for this event because I am white. My true responsibility is to transmit the following message to my children : no one should be murdered whatever her or his color is just because she or he wants equal rights for two different colors of skin.

    I do not feel guilty for what white people have been doing in the past. There were also white activists to make things move for the people of color.
    I would feel guilty if I had the same attitude as the one those colonialists had (and still have, for example in africa) in practically all the countries in the world they claimed to be theirs.

    The point here is to say that this ad-campaign is not well done because it is not representing correctly the countries where the company flies to. Final dot.

    Your vision hurts me because seeing racism where there is just a total lack of imagination and incriminating, once again, white people for this will not make things get better anywhere in the world.

    To end this, i would like to tell you that i am a great admiror of the asian, and mostly japanese ancient and modern history, that i think the way we see the world might be very different sometimes but in the end, we all want the same thing : be respected and loved as anyone should be on earth.

    Please consider that before posting something that might poison relations between people that have no reason to hate each others.

    Thanks a lot for reading this.

  22. Just relax, the only racism i can note from all of this, is coming from you!!!
    new ad campaign, called “France is in the Air“is very beautiful !!!
    you see evil where it ‘s not…:(
    You should not have much to do other than to criticize, while this ad campaign is just an invitation to dream, to travel, meetings…it’s person

  23. “I mean, according to your ad campaign, the iconic cultural costume of South America is dressing up like a parrot furry?

    And, also, what the heck were you thinking when you thought this was going to be an “iconic” image representing the diasporic African experience?”

    Really now, haven’t you heard about artistic, conceptual work? According to you, a photo, which should be a piece of art, should be poorely portraying vulgar things, things as they are. These are fashion style photos. like those haute couture shows clothes nobody wears in the streets. They’re extravagant and this is what they are supposed to be. It’s not for everyone, at least not for those who can’t understand concepts of imagery.

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