The Fiji Water Girl Is Not Your Friend

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Following the 76th Golden Globe Awards on Sunday night, I begrudgingly woke up to a timeline congested with photos of an impressive brunette woman handling a posh, acrylic tray offering 330mL bottles of Fiji water. I didn’t watch the award ceremony, but it was immediately evident I’d made a dire mistake by missing some sort of weird performance art or otherwise highly relevant commentary, as fellow millennials started posting photos of the woman—dubbed ‘Fiji Water Girl’—as a reaction image across social media. Some called her badass; a hard worker. “Look at her working the red carpet in heels!” As much a head-turner as any of the real celebrities walking the Globes’ red carpet.
Publications began eulogizing her as a show stealer, commending her for becoming 2019’s first meme (wrong), lauded her as the next big internet sensation. “Fiji Water Girl Steals Spotlight at Golden Globes” one read. Well, she’d photobombed celebrities. Lots of celebrities. “Epic!” roared the collective conscious. She photobombed Constance Wu, Jim Carrey, Idris Elba and his family (um… how dare you?), Heidi Klum and Tom Kaulitz (as they kissed), Cody Fern (seriously, fuck you), Jamie Lee Curtis, and countless other actors and actresses. #FijiWaterGirl began to trend amidst the chaos.

But honestly, the Canadian model (whose real name is Kelleth Cuthbert) was unmistakably hired by Fiji Water to achieve one sinisterly simple task: trick the public into imagining a water bottle brand is not just fashionable, cool, and worth consuming, but sentient. It’s a marketing campaign masquerading as a meme, and a beautiful one, at that. A triple threat… and a dangerous symbol of consumerism.

The Fiji Water Girl brand campaign represents consumerism at its gravest because it works in the public’s disinterest. But it also works in actors’ disinterest. Most celebrities played it cool. What choice do they have, really, other than to appear candidly rude by asking an employee to please exit the photo? That kind of behavior makes headlines. And that is, of course, if the photobombed stars were even aware Cuthbert was lingering behind them (it’s almost inconceivable that they weren’t). 

One actress, at the very least, was paying very close attention: aforementioned photobombing victim Jamie Lee Curtis. Curtis was not and is still not okay with the charade, asserting on Tuesday in an Instagram post of herself (and Cuthbert, staggering in the background) that Curtis was fully cognizant of the “blatant promotions by Fiji and Moet where young women with their trays filled with their wares stood near a designated camera” and “knew why there was a photographer poised there.” Curtis claimed she tried to move away as she loudly exclaimed she did not want to participate in advertising for either brand. 

Despite the uproar surrounding the Fiji Water Girl and, well, Fiji Water, the true unsung hero here is tap water and BPA-free reusable bottles.

Curtis revealed what spectators of the event (us norms who don’t attend award shows) wouldn’t have otherwise suspected: there weren’t just models assigned to promote brands without the acquiescence of those photographed beside them, there were photographers sanctioned to do the brand’s bidding as well. Curtis concluded her post with: “The sponsors of events need to get permission from people when they get them to take their picture next to products.”

For me, I don’t know what’s worse: that brands continue to develop “meme-worthy” cringey campaigns I can only shove into a dark, vacant compartment in my brain labeled “Corny,” or that people—people I know, people that I thought knew better—fall for it, or more critically, enjoy it. It’s as if they can’t grasp why a brand would go so hard to sell a few water bottles.

So here it is, louder for the people in the back: brands are not your friends! “Owning” celebrities—in other words, kicking stars (or other brands) down a notch—is a tactic used by brands to level with you, albeit deceitfully, to make you feel like you’re their equal. It’s the same song and dance fast food brands use to continually dunk on one another over Twitter; and twin flames with the flagrant corporate discourse that led to the Wendy’s January 4 Twitter roast, where the square burger brand’s faceless social media manager spent an undivided day roasting any account that interacted with their account.

The idea of “scamming” rich conglomerates—through owning, roasting, or pure trickery—somehow permeates minds as good and worthwhile, even when the perpetrators are… also rich conglomerates. In late 2018, Payless allegedly tricked 60 wealthy “influencers” into buying their products by ticking the prices of their footwear up 1,800 percent and rebranding as a fake luxury boutique “Palessi.” One affluent idiot apparently dropped $645 on shoes retailing for no more than $39.99. Ha! Jokes on them. Dense rich people, right? The internet—as it tends to do—spontaneously combusted over praise for Payless, knighting them with Robin Hood-like status, superior to lavish brands: Payless is now good, upscale brands are bad. But according to Forbes, Payless was worth $3 billion at the end of 2017, with Payless Holdings ranking #156 on Forbes’ 2018 list of America’s Largest Private Companies. That’s not exactly a drop in a bucket.

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And lo and behold, Payless certainly plotted Palessi so that coverage of the scheme would release post-Thanksgiving—just in time for the holidays. Christmas-themed Payless commercials featuring their fervid swindling of influencers commenced into December, demonstrating that no, as headlines had so confidently established in November, Payless did not “scam the rich,” they tricked you. The person is now watching these commercials, nodding like a zombie as Payless illustrates what immeasurable quality their shoes are; because how could they not be? Can you believe influencers paid so much for these shoes? It’s all a game.

What makes this story even more undesirable and grossly consumerist is that Fiji Water, owned by the Wonderful company, has been anything but completely corrupt to its Fijian employees. Fiji Water allegedly subsisted for 13 years, since its inception in 1995, exempt of taxes in Fiji. As Sociologist Jessica Schad previously told Vox, they “adopted tactics that demonstrate that Fiji Water does not care about Fiji or Fijians.” 

Fiji Water’s tax-exempt standing was allegedly altered following the rise to power of Fijian military leader Frank Bainimarama in 2006, and in 2008 Fiji Water reacted to requests to increase taxation on their water by laying off Fijian employees. In 2010, when faced with further tax increases, Fiji Water responded by temporarily firing all employees and shutting down the business entirely, resulting in a stalemate in negotiations. They laid off additional employees in 2011.

Schad told Vox of her 10 years studying Fiji Water’s place in Fijian culture, “While some Fijians were benefiting from jobs at the plant, and some nearby communities were receiving support from the company, I found many of the financial effects to be quite superficial and not long-lasting, that it was creating a dependency relationship on the industry, and that the extraction of the water was changing local views on the commodification of water and natural resources.” This alone could be enough to make you reconsider your brand loyalty.

And the cherry on top—as we reach perilous levels of climate change, water bottles and unnecessary plastics have become a symbol of absolute waste and excess. Vox reports it “takes around 6.74 kilograms, or 1.75 gallons of water, to produce, export, and distribute one bottle of Fiji Water. It also takes 2,000 times the amount of energy to produce bottled water as tap water, and each bottle costs up to 2,000 times more than tap water.” Despite the uproar surrounding the Fiji Water Girl and, well, Fiji Water, the true unsung hero here is tap water and BPA-free reusable bottles.

And despite tax increases, Fiji isn’t exactly pinching pennies. Fiji Water allegedly did $85 million in sales in 2009 and remained a popular water bottle—so popular it dipped a toe into Seapunk, later routinely appearing in digital media as part of Tumblr’s Vaporwave art “aesthetic” from 2011-2013. In 2011, Fiji Water also helped sponsor Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, earning its not-so-rightful place as the coolest water bottle brand. The famously hip water bottle has more recently been featured on acrylics in 2016 by crazy-talented nail technician Krokaine, and Danielle Bernstein of We Wore What revealed her loyalty to Fiji Water in a 2017 Forbes interview that touched on her brand ambassadorship. Not that the Fiji Water Girl didn’t help tremendously—Apex Marketing Group estimated Fiji would have had to spend more than $12 million for the same amount of exposure Cuthbert brought in during the Golden Globes. 

And her own following on Instagram has risen more than 260 percent—from nearly 60,000 followers before the Globes to more than 210,000 currently. A star has truly been born… whether that’s a good or bad thing remains to be seen.