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Should a Nazi symbol be used in a marketing campaign about the rise of Nazism?

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That’s a question that came up last month when the Guthrie Theater unveiled its first promotional image for Cabaret, which it will produce next summer.

Set in 1931 Berlin, the 1966 musical, written by composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb, uses a seedy nightclub as a backdrop for the encroachment of anti-Semitism at the end of the Weimar Republic. 

The Guthrie’s initial promotional artwork, released on Facebook on November 6, showed someone standing on a teetering chair in a pair of high-heeled black boots. On the floor below, the chair’s shadow revealed a swastika. A week later, after receiving criticism in the comments section of the post, the theater removed the image from Facebook. The original piece, now without the Nazi symbol, is currently on the Guthrie’s website. 

“My reaction was, ‘Why would you do that?’” says Amanda Rodriguez, a marketing professional in the performing arts industry. The use of the swastika especially shocked her knowing that, as the theater’s summer musical, the image would likely be mass produced on billboards, buses, and newspapers. 

Little & Company's original promo work (left) was eventually edited to remove the swastika (right).

Little & Company's original promo work (left) was eventually edited to remove the swastika (right). Promotional artwork for 'Cabaret' at the Guthrie

This wasn’t the first time the theater was called out for including swastikas in marketing material. 

During the 2017-18 season, Rodriguez was working as a marketing assistant at the Guthrie. That year the theater used a swastika in a publicity image for Lillian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine

“[Guthrie's marketing department] had meetings about why we shouldn’t do this again,” Rodriguez says. “After listening to the conversations we had, and having discussion around why this is a harmful image... I thought, ‘Okay, now it’s time to show some accountability.’ We can’t just keep putting swastikas in the artwork.” 

In the process of creating the art, the marketing staff works with an outside vendor (in this case it was Little & Company) to create an image to represent a production. Joseph Haj, the Guthrie’s artistic director, says he was quite close to the development of the Cabaret publicity image. “One of my pet peeves in theater—though I really understand why it happens—is that the art for shows is sometimes at such a great distance from the production that actually gets made,” he says. 

Haj notes that the swastika image was purposefully used because of the strong statement he intends the production to make. 

“It’s not an accident that we are doing Cabaret next summer on the cusp of the presidential election,” he says. “The production that I very much hope to make is one that describes a society that is dancing as fast as possible, keeping the noise level up as loud as possible, to keep from seeing and hearing this train that is rushing towards us. It is explicitly about the rise of Nazism, and I wanted art that represented what this musical is.” 

Swastikas are in the artwork, says Haj, as a direct result of him requesting that the publicity images say what the production is about. “I wanted art that strongly represented the production that I hope to make with my colleagues this summer,” he says. 

However, the images were removed after Haj discussed the issue with community leaders, including a rabbi at a local synagogue. “I think I under-considered the people who have not bought tickets to the production, or who are not buying tickets to the production,” he says. “I under-considered that there would be people who are not inviting this art into their homes by way of a mailer or seeing it on the side of a bus.” 

“Part of why I wanted to bring it up as a conversation was not to bring down any organization,” says Rodriguez, “but to talk about what this image means and what it does to people when they see it.” 

Rodriguez notes that the symbol isn’t just something that holds significance historically; there have been recent incidents in Minnesota where swastikas have been used to threaten and scare people. “It’s used by people today to commit violence against not only Jewish people but queer people and other people of color,” she says. “It’s not an image you can use lightly.” 

The swastika has a power similar to the Ku Klux Klan hood, says Kit Bix, a local Jewish theater artist and critic. With hate crimes on the rise on the University of Minnesota campus and other places around the country, the swastika “no longer signifies only the German Nazi regime but in fact the resurgence of anti-Semitism and white supremacy,” Bix says. “That is part of the problem: These are no longer merely historical markers. They are Trump-era signifiers of violent anti-Semitism and racism that threaten us today.”

L-R: Promotional material for Guthrie's 'Watch on the Rhine'; a man rides a subway in NYC while sitting on a campaign for 'The Man in the High Castle.'

L-R: Promotional material for Guthrie's 'Watch on the Rhine'; a man rides a subway in NYC while sitting on a campaign for 'The Man in the High Castle.'

A similar situation arose in 2015. When Amazon Prime’s series The Man in the High Castle launched, the company posted advertisements in New York’s subway system featuring giant images of the American flag, the stars replaced with a German eagle and an iron cross. After pressure from the mayor, Amazon pulled the promotional material. 

In both of these cases, the concern is that these campaigns are very public. It’s one thing to use traumatizing images on a TV show or onstage, but it’s another matter when people who are waiting for the train or walking down the street are subjected to hate symbols. 

When Frank Theatre produced The Sound of Music in 2007, huge Nazi flags unfurled from the balcony of the Ordway. Wendy Knox, Frank’s artistic director, says she may well choose to do the same thing again if she were to remount the show. However, she acknowledges that time and place are important. 

“I don’t think you can omit them and forbid them,” she says. “We can’t erase history, either, but how [these symbols] get used is a legit question. Frankly, I think using a swastika in PR material is not the best idea.” 

“I think the better decision was taken to remove the swastika from the artwork going forward, because we don’t want to do any harm or any damage to anybody,” Haj says.