Amazon’s Colossal Gaffe

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Posted on December 11, 2015, at 4:00 p.m.
by Katie Gatti.

Nazi-related images and stylized American flags that included the German eagle and iron cross in place of stars surrounded New York City subway passengers on Nov. 23.

An elaborately executed public transportation street tag? A sick joke by late-to-the-party Communist sympathizers? No, this historically insensitive display was designed and installed by none other than online shopping industry giant Amazon.

The ads, which were intended to promote Amazon’s new original series “The Man in the High Castle,” “had completely wrapped the seats, walls and ceilings” of a train that connects Time Square and Grand Central Terminal in midtown Manhattan, according to Reuters.

The show depicts an alternate reality in which Nazi Germany and Japan gain joint control of America after emerging victorious from World War II. The subway ads featured images of the fictitious flags and other Nazi-linked imagery.

Unsurprisingly, New Yorkers were outraged. Amazon made a vague statement about the content of the show, but did not address the consequential controversy.

The ads disappeared the following evening, but there’s some discrepancy as to why: Amazon claimed the ads weren’t removed at its direction, which directly contradicted a transit official’s comment that the company itself requested their removal.

Early Tuesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio asked Amazon to pull the ads, calling them “irresponsible” and “insensitive.” The show’s creator agreed they were “offensive” and said that the show’s content makes it difficult to market “tastefully.” Unfortunately, his opinion was not solicited prior to launching the campaign.

The ads were scheduled to run until Dec. 6, but were yanked only a day after their debut. What can we learn from Amazon’s cringe-worthy faux pas?

  • Historical sensitivity is crucial. While Amazon’s blunder is an egregiously obvious violation of this sentiment, the thin line separating a spicy political statement and downright insensitivity is not always easily discerned. It might take several focus groups (or, at the very least, a few outside opinions), but research usually means evasion of disastrous public sentiment. Especially in today’s increasingly hyper-offended world, it’s more important than ever to create sensitive campaigns.
  • Unconventional campaigns require more clarity than traditional ones. While unconventional marketing can be tremendously effective, nontraditional campaigns should have a clear source, message and purpose. Because the show hadn’t been widely publicized yet, nobody knew why the subway car was covered in Nazi-related imagery — only that Amazon was responsible for it. At their best, confusingly unconventional campaigns are a waste of money and ineffective. At their worst, they’re offensive and damaging.
  • When you cross the line, apologize quickly and clearly. Amazon’s ambiguous, diversionary reaction only compounded public fury. Since Amazon denied requesting the ads’ removal, it seemed like the gaffe was only corrected because of the transit official’s moral compass.

It’s unclear the impact that this mistake will have on the outcome of the show’s success, but it’s definitely not the first impression “The Man in the High Castle” was hoping to make. No matter what happens next, its launch will forever be colored by this colossal mistake.

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