This is Haiti, according to TOMS

A recent TOMS ad campaign claims to showcase “Haiti’s vibrant culture, globally influential art and amazing natural beauty.” It’s filled with images of foreigners traveling across the country. Notably missing are Haitians – in particular, Haitians who work at the TOMS factory near Port-au-Prince.

TOMS featured Haiti as a part of a campaign five years after an earthquake devastated the country. The aim was to highlight the country, TOMS’s work in it, and, most important, sell its shoes, bags and other goods. But the campaign ends up putting models wearing TOMS front and center, the small country provides the scenery. Hardly a highlight.

The resulting ads, claiming “This is Haiti” look like this:

Haiti, according to TOMS, is a place where good-looking hipsters hang out. The fashion industry continually comes under criticism for using native people as props and/or appropriating culture. The above photo does not even bother to include Haitians in the background – Haiti is barely scenery. That photo could be from anywhere in the world.

A campaign video does the same thing. It takes 16 seconds before Haitians appear on camera, well after images of the models and the countryside are juxtaposed against the “This is Haiti” theme. What follows are small clips of Haitians going about life, models wearing TOMS exploring the country and white people hugging Haitian children.

The music is upbeat. It leaves the viewer feeling hopeful as children try on TOMS shoes and decorate them with paint. It tugs at the heartstrings of a wanderlust with beautiful landscapes and foreigners gallivanting about the streets and seaside.

The TOMS website makes mention of the fact that it creates jobs in Haiti by producing goods in the country. It touts the distribution of more than 400,000 pairs of shoes. But it goes further than just unskilled labor.

“Creative jobs are especially hard to find in Haiti, and TOMS is proud to have also hired 30 Haitian artisans to design and hand paint our limited edition line of Haiti Artist Collective shoes,” according to the site.

These facts are left out of the more visible aspects of the campaign. By focusing on foreigners, TOMS relegates Haiti and its people to the background. The campaign is like other fashion photo-shoots that use local people as props.

TOMS is an apparel company first and foremost. It gained wider notice with its buy-one-give-one model, even though giving away shoes is not an effective way to deal with problems facing the world’s poor.

“Your TOMS shoes look great with that outfit. But they’re not going to save the world,” said Vox’s Amanda Taub, in a recent article on TOMS.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.