Johnny Depp has had a rough go of it lately. Just a year ago, everyone’s favorite Keith Richards impersonator was outed in a Rolling Stone exposé as a prodigal hedonist—even by Hollywood standards. The backlash was swift and one-sided; the once venerable Depp has transformed into a mascara-drenched caricature of his former self.
Some of the public ire might be deserved, but there are plenty of awful people in Hollywood who have a lot less generosity on their resumes. Depp’s been known to visit children’s hospitals dressed as Captain Jack Sparrow, never breaking character even for the parents. He’s given away millions of dollars to various charities. He even donated his entire salary for 2009’s Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus to Heath Ledger’s kid.
You can’t deny Depp’s used his money and fame to do lots of good things. But he’s also clearly made some terribly poor choices—the latest example being this ad for Sauvage, a new fragrance from Christian Dior.
OK. Let’s take some deep breaths and start with the obvious: Calling this brand “Sauvage” and affiliating it with Native Americans is incredibly insensitive to the vast majority of people living in this country. While the word may mean something more akin to “natural” or “wild” when translated from French, it’s still a downright terrible—and indefensible—choice.
Beyond that, this is a beautifully shot and choreographed commercial. While it’s shameless cultural appropriation, the warrior dance is depicted spectacularly. It’s performed by Canku One Star, a Native American dancer wearing traditional garb, and is a sight to behold.
All that to say, this spot was probably well intentioned. Christian Dior worked on the commercial with Americans for Indian Opportunity, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing the political and economic rights of indigenous peoples. And while it backfired, they probably thought hiring Johnny Depp was a stroke of genius because of his claimed Native American heritage. (Whether or not this is true—or just a way to legitimize Depp’s ill-fated turn as Tonto in The Lone Ranger–is up for debate.)
Unfortunately, the whole thing comes off as totally exploitative. But there’s a valuable lesson to be learned: Cultural appropriation opens the door for intense and relentless scrutiny. It also highlights the critical gap between intention and execution: Seemingly innocent ideas can come off as garish or even offensive if they’re not well considered.
There’s no doubt Christian Dior made a big mistake and deserves a reprimand. But instead of shaming them into oblivion, let’s take this opportunity to keep talking about why this situation is unacceptable. Clearly, a group of marketers at Christian Dior didn’t initially feel the spot was offensive—but a larger, more thoughtful dialogue might have avoided this whole debacle.
We should also keep in mind that Johnny Depp is not necessarily an awful person because of this commercial. (Although he may be awful for other reasons.) He seems to like and respect Native American culture, but he made a bad choice—something he’s been doing a lot of lately. Let’s hope he capitalizes on this as a chance to start turning things around. After all, with shredding skills like this, he shouldn’t be wasting his time peddling perfume anyway.