Images of Hitler and 9-11 Haunt Some Ads

It’s and advertising paradigm. Got no money? Shock ‘em, and get the media to carry the message.

Germany’s latest AIDS-awareness commercial turns to Germany’s most evocative character—Adolph Hitler—to generate shock, disgust, loathing and, well, attention. As Time Magazine points out (remember the free media thing), “That’s the point…”

The controversial ad, released online on Sept. 3 with a run-date on TV starting today, shows a couple having steamy sex in a dimly lit room (anyone who has ever stayed in a German hotel knows that the steam comes free on TV) with menacing music playing in the background. The viewer sees only the back of the man’s head until the very end, when the camera pans to his face — to reveal that it’s the Fuhrer himself, Adolf Hitler. Then the slogan flashes across the screen: “AIDS is a mass murderer.”

The use of the worst monster of the 20th century then begs the discussion. “is it ever okay to use Hitler in an ad?” Advertising Age this week also asked the question of its readers, “Is it ever okay to use images of 9-11 in advertising?”

In the case of Hitler, I’d have to say I’d be one squeamish ad director for a non-profit or advocacy organization greenlighting the use of Hitler’s image. On the other hand, if the ad campaign is truly for a good cause (i.e. AIDS prevention), I think I would hold my nose and approve when I saw the projections of how much free media we would get that we otherwise would have to buy or beg for. If I was the CMO of a private enterprise, even Bennetton, I’d surelsy say Nein to using Hitler. There is no legitimate for-profit enterprise I can think of that would be justified in using Hitler’s image, and I wouldn’t want my brand associated with the effort. Can I imagine some start-up high-caffeine sports-drink with a $100,000 ad budget doing it? Sure. But it wouldn’t be right, and I wouldn’t consider that a legitimate ad effort…just a couple of punks trying to ride a wave and get some cheap publicity.

Then, there is 9-11 images. Frankly, eight years later, it still feel like hallowed territory to me. I don’t even approve of political candidates using the images as props. Not even Rudy Giuliani, whose role in making the actual attack worse than it might have been has always been legitimately questioned. So many people died that day, and so many heroes died that I would be the guy in the room saying…”No people. It’s just not right. Think of something else.” Just because. I know when something is a wrong idea, and using images of the burning towers is wrong to sell something on so many levels. Back to the non-profit argument.

Is a good non-profit justified as a means to garnering attention for a good cause? Belgian magazine Humo is infamous (and that was the point of course) for doing just about the tackiest ad in this space: Other images in the campaign were also chosen to fit the tagline “reading HUMO can have serious consequences.” In one ad, for example, Saddam Hussein was so captivated by the magazine he didn’t notice that the US army was right behind him invading his little hideout. Frankly, the Hussein ad was a better idea than the 9-11 ad. But I think when you are a bunch of upstarts sitting in Antwerp or Liege, what is likely to offend Americans’ sensibilities is not your first concern.

MTV Magazine Brazil also used the Tower images, comparing deaths from Aids, famine and poverty to the deaths caused in the 911 attack.

Text next to the towers in the ad: 2863 death Text next to the man: 40 million HIV infected in the world. “The world united against the terrorism should do the same against AIDS”

Text next to the towers : 2863 death Text next to the boy: 824 million undernourished people in the world “The world united against the terrorism should do the same against hunger”

Text next to the towers: 2863 death Text next to a boy in the ad: “630 million indigents in the world” “The world united against the terrorism should do the same against poverty”

Again…do we grant people trying to get across a non-commercial message a special license? It’s a tough one. Lego did a campaign with the positive end message “Rebuild it” showing the dust cloud post WTC attack as their image. The image showed two towers seemingly made from Lego bricks. The ad was credited to Saatchi & Saatchi China in 2006. The creative team responsible later said they were pushing their own creativity and came up with the idea and that their managers at Saatchi had nothing to do with it. That was the story especially after Lego managers through a fit. Hmmmmm.

Thus far, use of these images, and the Hitler image, are confined to cause-related and fringe brands and companies mostly overseas. But, the Net makes these things global.

My own opinion is that we need get hysterical. Consider the sources, and judge accordingly. And, most importantly, never forget.

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