Irony, design and image “@” Belmayne…or lifestyle as amnesia

An interesting piece in the Sunday Independent [free subscription required] deals with the advertising campaign for the Belmayne estate on the Malahide Road.

This campaign has involved websites and billboards and has already been the cause of some controversy with both the Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland and the Equality Agency considering whether the imagery (as in the example below) is degrading to women.

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On the face of it there is a somewhat disturbing element to the imagery. The man and the woman are caught in an embrace, but the stylised nature of the photograph lends an uncertain edge to it. How does one read this image? Which of the two figures is in control, or is it to be viewed as ironic or parodic and is the glossy finish simply an indication of that irony?

It may be tucked between the gloomy M50 and the mundanity of the local Tesco but Belmayne’s titillating advertising campaign infuriated some people with its near naked glamour. One advert showed a young couple lying astride each other on top of a kitchen cupboard with the strapline ‘Something’s cooking @ Belmayne. Gorgeous living comes to Dublin.’

A ripe strawberry pie adds to the racy feel of another image in which a woman lies provocatively on top of a chopping board. Another billboard depicts two scantily-clad young women lounging legs akimbo on a bed, with a young man hovering behind them. The advert carries the tag: ‘After hours @ Belmayne’.

Even if one can accept the fashion styled imagery, the double meaning of the straplines suggests the opposite of high sophistication, perhaps only emphasised by the faintly dated usage of the @ symbol. It’s all very 2001.

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Consider some more of the imagery used on the website, which juxtaposes close-ups of decorative features and a florid serif face in an attempt to suggest timelessness, elegance, sophistication.

But this cuts across the imagery of the models which is too didactic, even in its apparent irony. This visual signification is so over the top that it begs numerous questions. Who precisely lives like this? Who in Belmayne will live like this? And would those who live and die by ‘lifestyle’ actually purchase an apartment on foot of this campaign? There is a sort of visual and conceptual dislocation here. Something does not entirely add up.

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It is not as if sexual imagery in fashion advertising is unknown. Consider, briefly, this advertisement for the “Unforgiven” (and it’s probably not unreasonable to suggest that that name was something of a hostage to fortune), a fragrance for men by Sean “Diddy” Combs, which uses a remarkably similar style of imagery, albeit more charged.

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Yet the Belmayne imagery which contains elements of glamour, an explicit – if stylised – sexuality and the sort of faux hyper-representationalism of fashion photography is perhaps a curious counterpoint to the location. For Belmayne sits close to Darndale, one of the arc of corporation housing estates that are strung across the north side of the city. And location being all the proximity of Dublin airport has meant that a wave of development has bridged the space between the airport and the estate of which Belmayne is only one example.

So is all this patina of ‘sophistication’ and a rarified sexuality simply a form of hand-waving on the part of the developers? Something to undercut previous (and already outdated) significations of place. Elegance comes to Darndale. Sophistication to the Northside. ‘Gorgeous living’ now a commodity which can be purchased. Lifestyle as amnesia.

There has been some concern expressed over the past decade regarding the use of completely invented names for housing developments. The Gardens, and Downs which have sprung up on the ever expanding periphery of Dublin, and Cork and Limerick speak of a sort of iconoclastic nomenclature. Ignore or obliterate the past in favour of…well…elegance, sophistication, ‘gorgeous living’.

The very pretentiousness of the enterprise undercuts what it seeks to achieve. The Sunday Independent notes that on foot of complaints that the adverts objectified and demeaned women:

The advertising agency McCann Erickson on behalf of LM Developments who built the estate replied that the objective of the campaign was to set out Belmayne as more than just a housing development and that they did not think it was inappropriate.

They added that they always ensured their models were suitably attired and the campaign was devised to look “Beautiful, glossy and high end.”

But why? Belmayne is a fairly ordinary apartment and housing development no more or less unique than any other scattered across Dublin, or Leinster or indeed the whole of the island. A first time buyer noted in the Irish Times that:

‘The developers are trying to promote a hugely glamorous way of life if you live here – are they mental? Do they think I’m that guy with three girls draped over him?”

Yet the same Irish Times notes that as the property market has slowed it has become necessary for developers to entice custom in new and original ways:

Now, where several different developers can be in competition with one another for buyers in the same area, they have to try a lot harder. “Marketing suites” are common, where potential customers look at sophisticated models of the developments and view simulated computer images on plasma screens, while availing of the free tea, coffee and soft drinks served up by designated staff. Gone are the days of waiting out in the cold for hours overnight to make your booking deposit. At Belmayne, you even get chauffeured in a flashy Chrysler Voyager the short distance from the information area, with its potted palm trees, posh sofas, and clipboard-wielding staff, to the show apartment.

The article notes that this has entailed previously undreamt of extravagances.

The developers invited their rivals to Monday’s launch party, where champagne was on offer all night, and former English footballer Jamie Redknapp and his wife Louise were “invited guests”. Such PR-driven, champagne-fuelled parties with minor celebrities in tow are common enough in Dublin at launches of cosmetics or fashion collections, but rather more unusual for apartments in Dublin 17.

And the linkage between image and reality, or rather the image that the developer wishes to promote and the more mundane reality of an apartment development in Dublin is such that visual and other elements -such as Jamie Redknapp – are presented as an aspect of life in Belmayne.

That these significations are – at best – incorrect, is in some senses irrelevant. Those who live there are unlikely to believe that Redknapp will be a neighbour, or that simply by being there they will be taking on a lifestyle that is indistinguishable from that depicted in the advertising. But the significations of elegance and sophistication are all that matters. And if there is a patina of irony, well so much the better. Sophisticated and self-mocking. That’s quite a combination. That they are established is the purpose of the exercise. And – a further irony – one also has to note that writing about it, in pieces such as this, only serves the aims of those who devised the campaign.

But while the lifestyle is one thing, it is perhaps the overt – if faux – sexualisation in the public space of the imagery which is most notable. Ricky Poyner has noted in “Designing Pornotopia” sexualised imagery of this sort is not unproblematic. He writes:

Until recently, sexuality was understood to be a private matter and for most people, most of the time, despite our voyeuristic urges, it still is…but intrusive, omnipotent sexual imagery erodes the private/public distinction and evaporates any sense of mystery…the advertisers [of a specific campaign] probably saw this as a breakthrough, though it was not the first time the idea had been used. The only shocking thing, in contemplating these supposed ecstatic images, was the realisation that, within such a short space of time, all this writhing and moaning in public had become such a turn-off.

Perhaps Poyner is over judgemental, yet it is difficult not to feel that there is a cynical aspect to certain means of selling products. That the faux-sexualisation of this particular imagery [and this is not to be taken as being an argument for censorship] is arguably inappropriate as material for the public space with complex significations, even if ‘read’ as irony. And that the disavowals that suggest the campaign is simply devised as ‘beautiful, high end and glossy’ are not to be taken entirely seriously.

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