iconic folly?

17Apr07

The story of Bryan Ferry in the news this week, after he made comments about his appreciation of Nazi iconography to a German journalist, is just the sort of issue that divides people very easily.

Bryan Ferry

The jaundiced reporting of his comments in the UK, followed by his subsequent apology and being dropped by Marks & Spencer from their advertising campaign, leaves me feeling the brand has done the right thing. But that the artist has been more naive than wrong.

I’m reminded once again that consumers and journalists sometimes find it inconvenient to bother understanding an argument concerning a provocative subject. So they may rely on ill-informed and rapid judgement instead.

Heat from the unpopular media coverage generated by such a story may make a marketing manager sweat and have a negative impact on a brand if it’s not handled promptly and decisively.

While, of course, I do not believe the horrific actions of the Nazi’s should ever be forgotten or forgiven. I find it difficult to argue that the striking work of their designers, architects and propaganda weren’t effective. Particularly in Germany itself during the 1920’s and 30’s.

It was Albert Speer, the Third Reich’s leading architect and the only Nazi leader to apologise at the Nuremburg Trials, who invented the theory of ‘Ruin Value.’ A theory Hitler reportedly took to heart.

Speer believed that the feature buildings of the Third Reich should be designed in such a way that they would leave impressive ruins in the far future. ‘Ruin Value’ would create a residual brand image, if you like, that would reflect his view of the perceived greatness of the Nazi civilization.

The ruins would leave posterity with an aesthetically pleasing reminder of what had once been created and would be reminiscent of the ruins tourists visit today from the ancient Greek and Roman civilisations.

The lasting impact of Nazi design is still felt today, even if most of Speer’s feature buildings were never built. The chilling sights of the Swastika, Nazi uniform or the SS skull icon still provoke recognition and a profound response from many adults in the Western World, even seventy years later.

In December 2006 the SS skull motif was reported as appearing on a range of fashion T-shirts sold at US Wal-Mart stores. The clothing created understandable controversy and a campaign for them to be removed from sale got underway.

walmart-orange-clothing-t-shirt-scott-deutsch-pres.jpg

A journalist in Miami tracked down the company responsible for the T-shirt, Orange Clothing, and their president Scott Deutsch (who is Jewish) defended the design. Scott’s view was that the striking motif was found in a book of 20th Century iconography and was not intended to show any empathy with the Nazi’s. I’m left feeling uneasy. Let’s hope this isn’t cynical spin and that he hasn’t just cashed the cheques without a concern for his client’s brand.

Over 50,000 sales later, the T-Shirt was still reported on the shelves in February 2007, despite Wal-Mart promising it would be removed from sale. But the campaign against Wal-Mart appears to eventually be gaining some traction. And, of course, every journalist will find this story on file to reference whenever they wish to write a new story about Wal-Mart from this point on.

At the end of the day, I guess the reason for this post was to remind myself that iconography and design can be strikingly powerful. But that doesn’t blindly equate with always positive. Particularly when approaching subject matter that may clearly be interpreted in different ways by consumers.

This is particularly relevant when working on brands that chase the youth market, counter-culture or fashion-led sectors. And brands that work with more conservative audiences may open themselves to more than just criticism by being provocative in their marketing or products.

Striking and memorable design work should provoke and perhaps even divide opinion, but not seek to act recklessly without due care for a brand.

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