Resource Magazine - Summer 2010

Diesel's "Be Stupid"
By Joe Sutton
Images courtesy of Anomaly and Chris Buck


"Stupid is trail and error." a Diesel ad on the subway platform reads. "Mostly error." Mostly, yes – but if you try hard enough being stupid might get you to stumble upon something rather brilliant.

It shouldn't be a surprise that Anomaly, an agency whose main philosophy is that "the [traditional] models are all broken," came upon the seemingly confounding and mystifying philosophy that clothing shoppers should be stupid. In fact, anyone should be "stupid" in all aspects of life -- ready to take risks and act, rather than sit passively: smart wants what stupid gets.

Anomaly's creative team, led by Mike Byrne, spent three months brainstorming, writing and editing the headlines used in Diesel's "Be Stupid" ad campaign. The team put together a manifesto of headlines advocating stupidity and dismissing smartness, and presented it to the jeans company, who fell in love with the idea. "[Diesel] couldn't wait to see how the manifesto would live as something with images," said Chris Whalley, Head of Operations at Anomaly. While the headlines can verge on the absurd ("Smart may have the brains, but stupid has the balls"), some carry a surprising sense of wisdom that epitomizes the campaign. "If we didn't have stupid thoughts," says one, "we'd have no interesting thoughts at all."

After conceptualizing the campaign's idea, Anomaly contacted photographers Chris Buck, Melodie McDaniel, and Kristen Vicari, presenting them with boards of images which were to be used as ideas and inspiration for the type of images Anomaly wanted for the campaign. "Be Stupid," which aggressively hits you with bold statements and perplexing imagery, seemed a natural fit for Buck, whom we spoke to, a photographer with a panache for absurd, yet authentic portraiture.

Buck described the campaign as "almost juvenile in the idea, yet delivered in a way that can be quite sophisticated visually." Buck spent three hours on a treatment of ideas he wanted to shoot, though the photography was different than what he typically practices. "The interesting angle on Diesel was it was essentially a fashion shoot -- and I'm not a fashion shooter." But because of the campaign's bewildering philosophy it sought to promote, Buck found no trouble adapting his own trademark peculiar style to the brand. "[I delivered] more the 'Chris Buck' part of it, the awkwardness and the visual aspect."

One of Buck's favorite photos from the series is one taken under an overpass. A bench, a phone booth and a trash bin lay sideways upon the sidewalk on which the models sit, pressed against a wall; also on the wall are coffee cups and litter, creating the illusion that we are looking at the image sideways when, in fact, it's everything in the picture that's on its side. Because of the baffling viewpoint, the shot posed a challenge for Buck. "We actually shot that one for a long time," Buck said. As shooting went on, the models "looked too posy," and the crew began to over-think the shoot. The problem was they were being smart, and not "stupid" enough. During the editing process, an earlier, more relaxed photo ended up being selected.

Much of the conceptualizing was done on the spot during the photo shoots, drawing "inspiration from the set, our fantastic props guy, Chime Day Serra, and the willingness of the entire crew and client," Whalley said. This is not Anomaly's usual approach to shooting, but for the scenario-based shots, the process worked. "When we were shooting, those were long, difficult days," Buck said, "but they were fun."

After selecting eighty images from the original one hundred and fifty shots, Anomaly began pairing the headlines with the photos. Picking which words would sit alongside which image was an intuitive process. "[The images and copy] just worked," said Whalley, "probably because by that stage, we were living the images and words." And there you have it: for Anomaly, putting yourself in the stupid mindset did have a payoff.

The campaign is not without controversy. One ad, showing a woman on a ladder exposing her breasts to a security camera, prompted angry mothers to flock to the Internet in order to voice their concerns about the campaign's message. "I'm busily trying to raise a daughter who respects herself and makes smart decisions, not 'stupid' shock factor ones," wrote Lori Ziganto on the Right Wing News blog. Whalley hasn't felt the need to defend the campaign. "People either love it or hate it, with a passion!" he said. "We love it, Diesel has embraced it with such enthusiasm -- it's their new mantra." Hopping on Diesel's website, the store will invite you to "check out how stupid Diesel is." The campaign attitude certainly fits, being "young, provocative, smart, [and] challenging" Buck said, citing that Diesel's audience was all of these.

Telling consumers to be stupid sounds far from smart. Diesel, calling itself stupid, in fact could seem stupid. The on-the-fly style in which Anomaly did their photo shoots may be stupid, too. And when first looking at the ads during rush hour, bleary eyed and still half-asleep, one might think, "Those ads are stupid." But then again, there's something brilliant in Anomaly and Diesel's challenge of the norm. During these times in which we all look forward to change, to trying new things, we could all benefit by having a stupid overzealousness. That is, if you can tell what's stupid or not; now, there's a lot of smart in stupid.