When Brands Barabarise Culture


Modern brands—much like late 70s metal act Quiet Riot—really want to be Inside You, and the quickest way to do that is through culture. Aligning with a thing people do, love, or feel is a way of elevating a product or service above a simple supermarket item and giving it value beyond satisfying whatever need state it was designed to fill. And importantly, it can work. But as with poorly chosen festival headwear, cultural appropriation by brands can also go horribly wrong.

Today Coca-Cola Germany was forced to remove a video celebrating Fanta’s 75th anniversary after being accused of glorifying the Holocaust. In the video, a voice-over says “75 years ago, resources for our beloved Coke in Germany were scarce.” That scarcity led to the development of Fanta, a soft-drink which used oranges instead of whatever is in cola. The voiceover continues, “To celebrate Fanta, we want to give you the feeling of the good old times back.” The video fails to mention that the ingredient scarcity was due to World War II making the “good old times” a weird misappropriation of the Holocaust. Coke has since cut that phrase from the video.

As stunning a fuckup as this example is, mistakes like this aren’t as rare as you’d think. In 2014 when Brazil hosted the Fifa World Cup, Adidas sexualised the whole nation with two controversial T-shirts. One featured a woman in a skimpy bikini, along with the words, “Lookin’ to score”. The other featured a love heart enclosing a suggestive g-string. The T-shirts were pulled out of circulation after the Brazil’s tourism board complained they promoted prostitution.

Both of these shirts were pulled after complaints from the Brazil Tourism Board

The brand, in seeking to carve off a piece of Brazil, presented a polarising stereotype; and in turn painted themselves with an arrogance and disconnection that was surely the opposite of its desired effect.

Also last year, Urban Outfitters began selling a Kent State University sweatshirt that appeared to be splattered in blood. The sweatshirt recalled memories of the 1970 tragedy on the Ohio campus, where the National Guard killed four students protesting against the Vietnam War, blasting off 67 rounds in just over 10 seconds. The company publicly apologised for causing offence and removed the article from shelves.

The offending massacre-referencing sweatshirt

For most people, the words black and tan don’t carry the same connotation as they do in Ireland. But for the Irish they represents memories of the British paramilitary units that notoriously terrorised the civilian population during the 1920s. So in 2012 when Nike launched its “Black and Tan” sneakers on St Patrick’s Day, many people—including this Irish sneaker head—asked How would Americans feel if a brand named a pair of shoes “Taliban?” This episode was made worse by the fact that happy-go-lucky ice-cream brand Ben & Jerry’s had done the same thing six years earlier, releasing a “Black and Tan” ice-cream flavour back in 2006.

The appearance of any product onto the marketplace generally signifies hundreds of head hours and dozens of approvals. This made it particularly confounding when in 2002, sportswear manufacturer Umbro named a trainer Zyklon, which was the substance used in Nazi gas chambers. The company agreed to drop the name after complaints from Jewish groups including the Board of Deputies of British Jews, which condemned Umbro for “appalling insensitivity”. A spokesman for Umbro said: “We regret that there are people who are offended by the name. The naming of the shoe is purely coincidental and was not intended to communicate any connotations.”

Let’s for a second believe that explanation. Out of context, it is a cool sounding word, and that’s almost easier to swallow that a business deliberately referencing the attempted extermination of an entire people. And that probably goes for fashion brand Zara too. Back in 2012, the global mega chain put out a stripy kids top with a sewn-on sheriff’s badge. I know that sounds cute, but in reality it looked uncomfortably similar to uniforms worn inside WWII concentration camps.

This stripy number had a lot of people bummed out

Again, let’s chalk that up to designers not watching a lot of Sunday afternoon documentaries on ABC. However it did bring to mind the time Brazilian authorities closed down one of their manufacturers due to Nazi-like labour conditions just one year earlier.

Branding is often defined as strategy made visible, and the links between Zara’s Nazi-referencing fashion and brutal labour management corroborates for a good conspiracy theory. According to Louis Vuitton, Fashion Director Daniel Piette Zara is “possibly the most innovative and devastating retailer in the world.”

That said, it’s as much up to consumers to make responsible choices as it is for brands to bring to market responsible offerings. Especially given the latter of those two outcomes is becoming less and less dependable.

This article originally appeared on VICE.

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