Update (11/24/2015, 4:50 pm): Amazon has reportedly decided to remove the seat cover ads.
Controversy may pay in marketing -- although it's hard to tell if you don't get to see a company's sales figures after the fact -- but it can also blow up in your face. That appears to be what's happening with Amazon at the moment.
The company is promoting its new online series, The Man in the High Castle, a series based on the question of what might have happened had Germany and Japan won World War II. Clearly there will be fascist-related images and concepts. But rather than sticking with traditional ads and posters, Amazon bought the rights to cover subway seats in New York City with Nazi and imperial Japan symbols, as the Gothamist reported.
MTA spokesperson Adam Lisberg confirmed that one Shuttle train was decked out in imagery from the online TV series, using conformable vinyl wrapping. The show's advertising campaign began with 260 subway station posters on November 9, and the Shuttle wrap runs November 15 through December 14.
The images included the Reichsadler, a Nazi symbol. The city's transit authority said that because this was clearly a symbol of a television show and not a political statement (ads from a union-affiliated bank that backed a $15 an hour minimum wage were taken down by the agency), it was allowable.
But allowable is not necessarily the same as smart. Already there is a big press pickup of the story, which is perhaps not the sort of association a business might want, particularly right before Thanksgiving. And, once again, we're all left with the question of why companies don't pay more attention to what their marketing says about them.
In February 2015, Urban Outfitters got caught in backlash when it sold a gray-and-white tapestry with pink triangles, which reminded some of the uniforms that gay male prisoners had to wear in Nazi concentration camps. In the summer of 2014, Spanish clothing and accessories brand Zara sold a striped kids pajama with what looked like a yellow Jewish star. The company had a 2007 problem with handbags that sported swastikas.
Amazon has had its own previous brushes with Nazi imagery. Last December, its marketplace had many Nazi-themed products.
Why do companies continue to refuse to vet their marketing? Is it that there is no one old enough to possess associations that trigger concern reviewing plans? Have people in commerce become so disconnected from the people they sell to that it doesn't dawn on them? Or is this an issue of corporate cultures that look only at numbers and not at the faces of customers? Whatever the reason, this seems another stunning marketing failure, because not all press is good press. In fact, bad press can be pretty devastating.