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

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.


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