At the first reading, this new ad campaign for the 2010 BMW S1000RR strikes a very literal interpretation. A german bike violently destroying traditional Japanese imagery sends the message: Germany is taking on Japan. Since the intended audience (existing superbike purchasers) will be very aware that the S1000RR is targeted directly at bikes like the Honda CBR1000RR and Yamaha R1 on price, spec and purpose, no further explanation is needed. There’s even nice, if slightly dated, references to pop culture in the clear influence drawn from Frank Miller, Manga and even the “Kill Bill” movies. There’s just one little problem: a likely unintentional association with Nazi propaganda.
Traditionally, Manga is only black and white, not greyscale. Channeling
Miller’s Sin City and adding red is a clear attempt to jazz up images
that could otherwise fail to pop in environments crowded with glossy
colors. But, the combination of colors — black, white, red and grey –
is the iconic color pallet of Fascism and the Nazi party, witness the
original cover of Hitler’s Mein Kampf in the gallery above and
countless items of propaganda.
Then there’s the question of the Japanese characters depicted in the
ads: the helpless Geisha, the uncaring Samurai, the ponderous Sumo
wrestler; they’re all immensely negative, racist stereotypes. You could
easily substitute the hyper-feminine, unintelligent, weak Geisha in the
above ads for the hook-nosed Jew cowering in a corner that was depicted
in so many different forms of Nazi propaganda. Just as violence against
Jews was promoted and glorified by the Nazi party, these ads treat
violence against Japanese stereotypes as some sort of victory.
Do we think that BMW or the agency that created these ads, Serviceplan,
included the association with Facism intentionally? No. But it seems
like a remarkably stupid oversight when you’re creating work for a
company that made engines for German planes during WWII. After all, it
was only two years ago that a sensational documentary aired on German
television revealing that the Quandts, the family that controls the
majority of BMW’s shares, built their fortune on the back of slave
labor during the war, then refused to pay reparations during the 1970s.
That’s not the kind of history you want to reference in an ad campaign.
Update: apparently this needs a little clearer explanation.
Forget for a second the Miller/Manga-style illustration, focus instead on what that’s illustrating: racist stereotypes being portrayed as powerless, the glorification of a hero acting violently towards those racist stereotypes, iconic colors borrowed from Nazi party propaganda. It’s not the individual presence of any one of those elements that makes us see a reference to the work of Joseph Goebbels, it’s the combination of all three. Sure, the illustration style confuses things, but it doesn’t remove the presence of that combination of characteristics. Japanese culture has been so appropriated in the west that racist stereotypes of the Japanese have become almost normalized here, but presenting the Japanese as uncaring brutes, ponderously comical fat people in thongs and child-like women is a fairly classic case of stereotyping.
So are we calling BMW Nazis? Are we offended? Of course not. What we’re doing is pointing out a fairly significant gaff made by some people paid for their ability to combine subconscious cultural cues into a visual work intended to manipulate you into buying stuff. Advertising is traditionally agonized over for weeks and months with every tiny detail held under a magnifying glass. The power of historical references in colors, subjects and contexts is a tool that’s understood and studied to reach those ends. That all of this cultural baggage has found a way into a campaign for BMW isn’t something we think is deliberate, it’s something we think is stupid.