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Has Commercial Art Gone Too Far?

RUTH COLLINS: A recent television advertisement depicting Adolf Hitler having sex has received heavy criticism from HIV charities in the US and UK. As part of a new campaign masterminded by German advertising agency Das Comitee and filmed by German AIDS-awareness charity Regenbogen, the graphic advert features a couple in the throes of passion.  For maximum dramatic effect, only at the very end is the man revealed to be Hitler.  

The agency’s campaign includes television advertisements as well as posters featuring other dictators such as Josef Stalin and Saddam Hussein, in equally sexually compromising positions. Although realising that they might “overstate the case somewhat”, Dirk Silz, creative director of Das Comitee, told AFP news agency that “We asked ourselves what face we could give to the virus, and we knew it couldn't be a pretty face.” 

Certainly, the campaign creatively uses some of the world’s most infamous faces to personify the virus and send out the message that it is a very real and potent threat to society. However, evidently it is not just men who pass on the virus. Critics say that the sexually explicit images should be accompanied by an additional health message or warning to promote the use of condoms and safe sexual practices. 

Moreover, the advertisement has angered certain groups who feel it exacerbates the stigma associated with aids sufferers and confuses the message by implying that they are the mass murderers, not the virus itself. In any case, mass murderers Hitler, Stalin et al were in fact discriminatory and targeted particular communities and groups of people. AIDS makes no such distinction —no one is safe and everyone is vulnerable to contracting this insidious virus.  

Yet this is not the first time that featuring dictators in advertising campaigns has landed agencies in hot water, and interestingly enough, the advertisement seems to have provoked a greater reaction outside of Germany. Perhaps only a German company can get away with such a controversial campaign involving Hitler?  This seemed to be the case in 2007 when a New Zealand-based pizza chain decided to use an image of Hitler gesticulating a Nazi salute with a slice of pizza on billboard posters. Following widespread protest amongst locals, the company replaced Hitler’s image with Pope Benedict XVI. 

In a similar vein, the Düsseldorf branch of advertising giant Grey Group came under fire in April earlier this year for their advertising campaign for Doc Morris Pharmacies condoms that featured Hitler, Osama Bin Laden and Mao Zedong as sperm.  In a tongue-in-cheek fashion, the campaign suggested that these condoms were strong enough to prevent people from bringing future dictators into the world. Despite having never appeared in a paid media format, the advertisements were leaked onto a range of websites and sparked off a blogging frenzy. However, the Chinese government was far from amused and Grey desperately pleaded bloggers to stop posting the advertisement and subsequently disowned it altogether. 

Is it that we can make fun of our own country and its past and not of others then? Perhaps not.Exxon in Germany evidently went one step too far in early 2009 when their posters at 700 petrol stations throughout the country bore the slogan Jedem das Seine” (To Each His Own).  They group had inadvertently cited the very same slogan that lined the entrance gates of the Nazi Buchenwald concentration camp. Unsurprisingly, Jewish communities in Germany denounced the posters, demanding their immediate removal on grounds of a “total ignorance of history.” 

At any rate, in spite of and indeed thanks to the controversy of this advertising campaign, Das Comitee does succeed in creating a memorable advertisement. So if it makes even a few people think twice about having unprotected sex, then it has achieved its goal.  


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