Ever since 1917, when French Dada artist Marcel Duchamp tried to display a common urinal in a New York art exhibition under the title “Fountain,” artists and advertisers have understood that provocation can be an effective way of selling both museum tickets and products of all kinds. The trick, however, lies in knowing how to skirt the limits of good taste and basic common sense without pitching headfirst into the void.
The Benetton company is the absolute master of in-your-face advertising. Whether it’s a priest kissing a nun, death row prisoners staring into the camera, or a blood-soaked Yugoslav civil war uniform, the company’s star photographer, Oliviero Toscani, has known just how many buttons he can push without actually being run out of Italy for good (although he’s come close). His job was not only to create edgy images but also to get people talking. And talk they did – and still do – keeping Benetton in the headlines for over two decades. This week a fitness gym in Dubai, which already enjoyed a reputation for clever and edgy online ad campaigns, tried the same strategy and charged straight off a cliff. British ex-pat Phil Parkinson from the Circuit Factory gym in Dubai uploaded an iconic photo of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp (where about 1.4 million people died between 1942 and 1944, many from starvation and overwork) to the gym’s Facebook page above the slogan “Kiss your calories goodbye,” explaining that his exercise class “is like a calorie concentration camp.”
When protest exploded on Facebook and Twitter, Parkinson took the image down in a jiffy. “The idea of the campaign isn’t to upset anybody,” he explained, blaming it all on his “creative guy,” whom he has since told “where to go.” “The way branding works,” he continued, “is … you want people talking about your business. We want them talking about us, but we don’t want people to take offence at it.” Well, they’re talking, all right. For better or worse, Parkinson has just made his gym into the world’s most famous (at least for the next fifteen minutes or so).
The Auschwitz image is a shocker, all right, but the other images he had posted to the site (since removed) weren’t for the weak-stomached either. One of them was a poster showing a toilet bowl filled with human waste along with the word “bootcamps.” The next one had men doing press-ups with the words: “Saving Dubai from s**t like this.” The last showed four revealingly dressed women and said: “Are you a fat s**g? Just be a s**g.”
The Circuit Factory has a reputation for clever, edgy advertising
I’ll leave it to the Twitter community to tut-tut about the ethics (or lack thereof) of using Auschwitz to sell weight-loss workouts. There’s plenty to be said about this. For now, I’ll just point out that repetition always dulls even the biggest shocks and normalizes the strictest taboos. It’s like that old saying George W. Bush once so famously mutilated: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice… you can’t get fooled again!” It’s the same with outrageous imagery. I’ll admit that I was shocked the first time I saw Benetton’s kissing nun and priest, simply because I had never seen such a thing before and already knew, young and tender as I still was, that the image crossed a line for millions of people around the world. Today I wouldn’t bat an eyelid if I were to witness the exact same scene being acted out for real in front of my neighborhood Catholic church. The same goes for Auschwitz: See it too often in a displaced context, maybe for advertising a logistics company, and you can’t get shocked again.
Benetton had to bail on this ad for its "Unhate" campaign last November after the Vatican complained
To me, this episode illustrates two things. First, it confirms my suspicion that, for many years already, essentially everything relating to the Holocaust and the Nazis has been reduced to a cliché, a mere meme, rather than an actual event with a world of causes and consequences. Oppressed Jews are used to sell all kinds of tear-jerking and manipulative books and movies – John Boyne’s “Boy in the Striped Pajamas” is Exhibit A as far as I’m concerned – and also to push the most reactionary policies imaginable. Just last week I wrote about how extremist members of the Haredi community in Israel demonstrated wearing striped concentration camp uniforms and yellow stars to protest gender equality, calling their critics “Nazis” for believing women should be allowed to sit wherever they want on a bus. The other side, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, is no better, compulsively invoking Hitler every time they rattle their sabers against Iranian president Ahmadinejad and anyone else they don’t like the looks of. It’s no different in the US this election year of course, where the year is 1938 – regardless of what your calendar might claim – one’s own candidate is always Winston Churchill (even if his real name is Perry or Santorum) and their opponent is always Neville Chamberlain. So with this in mind, using Auschwitz to advertise a gym is actually less of a stretch than it might have been a generation or so ago.
Second, despite my comments above I think it’s remarkable that people all over the world who were not in any way personally affected actually still remember the Holocaust almost seventy years after it happened, even as an interchangeable advertising gimmick. I suspect this not only has to do with the enormity of the event itself, but also with an earlier, rather quaint awareness of history that may be dying out fast – namely that actions have consequences that affect everybody. I can’t but help wondering what, if anything, anyone in America will remember about our own fast-paced era in the future. Will clothing companies and fitness gyms be using photos from the Iraq War for advertising purposes in seventy years, or twenty, or even five? How about the Afghan War? Does anyone who’s not actually involved in it even know it’s still going on? Do any of them care?
For more on this story, check out the coverage in The National from Abu Dhabi.