Retail giant Amazon was recently forced to pull its advertising in New York City subway trains running from Grand Central to Times Square, which were decked with posters made to look like American flags influenced by Nazi Germany and Imperial Japanese designs.
The ads promoted its program The Man in the High Castle, based on Philip K. Dick’s novel of the same name and imagines a future in which the Axis Powers won World War II.
According to Dan Brooke, marketing director at Channel 4, there is a battle in the TV industry to garner as many viewers as possible, which has seen companies look towards riskier marketing strategies.
“You have to do more, and be more distinctive, to stand out,” he said.
Following a similar strategy, Sky promoted its Arctic thriller, Fortitude, by placing an 8ft fully animated model of a polar bear at various London landmarks. And Channel 4’s Humans, a drama about artificial intelligence, was launched after a hoax including an eBay page and a store in Regent Street claimed to sell robots.
“Some 15 years ago people would just turn up to watch shows,” said Brooke. “Now you have to go out and reach them more.”
Yet while The Man in the High Castle has garnered positive reviews, the subway campaign had the opposite effect, with many saying on Twitter that the push was inappropriate.
— Katherine Lam (@byKatherineLam) November 23, 2015
I know it’s an ad, but going to Amazon and seeing Nazi propaganda is still really jarring.
— Melody Burst (@MelodyBurst) November 20, 2015
Others have also questioned why the MTA rejected ads made by Thinx, which sells menstruation underwear, for being deemed too racy, while Nazi Germany symbolism was given the go-ahead.
— Kat (@katfbward) November 24, 2015
Kevin Ortiz, a spokesperson for the MTA, said: “The ads do not violate our content-neutral ad standards and thus we have no grounds to reject them. Unlike Fox, the MTA is a government agency and can’t accept or reject ads based on how we feel about them; we have to follow the standards approved by our board.”
The Anti-Defamation League’s New York Regional director, Evan Bernstein, labeled the ads insensitive though. “Our concern is that the Nazi imagery that is being used as part of this ad campaign comes without any context,” he said. “On the television program, which explains this is the notion of an America controlled by Hitler, you get that context. On the train, seeing the American flag paired with a Nazi symbol is viscerally offensive because there is no context as to what it means. The fact that the flag is spread across the seats only compounds the effect.
“This ad campaign has a feel of exploiting things that are so sensitive to so many people. We’re not saying that people don’t have a right to express themselves. We’re just saying that it has a level of insensitivity. We would hope that the people who distributed it will think twice about putting these symbols on more public transportation.”
This isn’t the first poor marketing decision to have graced headlines. In 2007, an advertising campaign for a movie based on Cartoon Network’s animated series Aqua Teen Hunger Force sparked a terror scare in Boston. LED panels bearing the likeness of two characters were mistakenly identified as bombs, leading to a citywide security response.
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