How Hitler invaded the marketing world
A long-held taboo on using Nazi imagery to sell products appears to be weakening. Is it just ad-land’s love of shock value — or something bigger?
IN A SOUTH Korean television commercial, a young woman in a military trenchcoat holds a soldier’s cap bearing a motif of what looks like an eagle gripping a swastika. The voiceover says: “Even Hitler could not take over the East and West at the same time.” The cosmetics manufacturer Coreana was later forced to withdraw this advertisement for its skin serum after complaints from the Israeli embassy in Seoul. It was not an isolated case. Only last month, a Ukrainian energy company was forced to apologise after it launched a billboard campaign using the image of Adolf Hitler to threaten customers who fail to pay their gas bills on time. Earlier this year, a hotel in Belgrade, Serbia, was slammed by the Anti-Defamation League after featuring an Adolf Hitler-themed suite, which had apparently proved a popular attraction.
Then there was the restaurant in Mumbai, named Hitler’s Cross, which in 2006 caused fury among the Jewish community in India. And last year, in New Zealand, the Hell Pizza chain was forced to take down a billboard featuring Hitler delivering a sieg-heil salute while holding a slice of pizza, after complaints from the Jewish community.
The use of Hitler’s image to sell goods and services has long been taboo, particularly in Europe. But the growing spate of examples of the Nazi dictator being used in advertising and marketing — the latest, reported in the JC last week, being a German agency’s advert for Hut Weber hats — suggests that Nazis are no longer off-limits.
Karen Pollock, chief executive of the UK-based Holocaust Educational Trust, is disturbed by the new fashion for Hitler imagery, particularly as the images tend to be holding up the Führer as an icon of power and strength in countries where antisemitism is a real threat.
“Exploitation of the Holocaust and Holocaust imagery under any circumstance is offensive and disrespectful to the millions of people whose families perished during this time,” she says. “In many instances cited, images of Hitler and the swastika appear to glorify both his tyrannical leadership and the terrible crimes carried out. When some of these examples seem to be from countries where antisemitism is still
rife, you can only presume these ‘advertising initiatives’ add fuel to these ugly sentiments and incite further hatred.”
Richard Brim, an advertising creative at London agency Leo Burnett, suggests that the reason countries in Eastern Europe and the developing world are using such basic shock tactics is because advertisers and consumers there are less sophisticated than in the UK and America.
“If you think back to the early ’90s when Benetton were using the Ku Klux Klan and Aids victims in their campaigns, it was the age of shockism,” he says. “But even then, they did it really well. They were highlighting issues. If you haven’t got the brain power or the ability to think and grab people’s attention, you resort to gratuitously contentious issues — normally to do with politics or sex — which are always going to get a reaction.”
Brim, who works with the government to publicise messages about drink-driving and national speed limits, emphasises that different countries use different advertising styles. “This particular trend has happened in East- ern Europe because the Holocaust is still in the mentality of the people who live there,” he says. “It could never happen in the UK because we are a bit more sensitive. Developing countries have not been allowed to talk freely for so long. They are 10 or 15 years behind us, so they are not as sophisticated in what they find offensive.”
Sir John Hegarty, chairman of Bartle Bogle Hegarty and veteran of many award-winning advertising campaigns, believes that in some cases using imagery of Hitler and the Nazis is a good way to keep the Holocaust in the public mind.
“There are some people who are so appalling that the best thing you can do is laugh at them,” he argues. “And by making a mockery of him, you keep alive the knowledge of Hitler. You keep him in the public domain so people can remember what he did.”
Hegarty insists that whether or not such material is acceptable depends on how it is used. “We did a commercial for Sky TV and we used Joe Stalin,” he says. “People were appalled at that, but actually it laughed at everything he stood for.
“Another time, for our One 2 One cam- paign, [former footballer] Ian Wright said he wanted to have a One 2 One with [sprinter] Jesse Owens because he stood up to totalitarianism. We got footage of him running in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, which has a lot of Nazi symbolism. In the end, we backed away from it because the client felt it was offensive.
“I personally think they were wrong. He was only trying to say this guy stood up to racist beliefs and he succeeded. That is an example of people who were oversensitive and did themselves a disservice. There’s a danger here that we become oversensitive to things.”
He adds: “But I would question some of the ads. One is often trying to shock people to get attention so you have got to question their motives. But in a free society there should be free debate, although as advertisers we should be socially responsible. The principle of saying ‘you can’t talk about this person’ is wrong. Pushing Hitler underground by not allowing him to be used means he becomes a persecuted figure and we sympathise with victims.
“Reducing the man to a pizza salesman is about right. It ridicules him. I do get worried when I see censorship. Of course, that is ultimately what Hitler wanted.”
The Hitler suite ( above) at Belgrade’s Mr President designer hotel. The owners say the £100-a-night room is much in demand among German, Croat and Slovenian guests; and ( left) a bar in Busan, South Korea, one of several in the country named after the Nazi leader
A newspaper advert for the Nulaid egg company in South Africa; the Hitler’s Cross restaurant at Kharghar, near Mumbai in India; a billboard for New Zealand’s Hell Pizza chain; and the Serviceplan advertising agency’s ad for the Hut Weber hat company in Germany, which features sketches of Hitler and Charlie Chaplin