US & Canada

Swastika T-shirt backlash forces company to U-turn on campaign

A T-shirt emblazoned with a swastika symbol which the fashion brand said represents "peace and love" Image copyright Teespring.com
Image caption The T-shirt design was part of a campaign to rebrand the swastika

A US clothing company has come under fire after T-shirts appeared online featuring swastikas in a move aimed at reclaiming the symbol as one of "love".

The attempt to rebrand the Nazi emblem as a symbol of "peace" was criticised on social media as the public refused to support the campaign.

Days after the design appeared, it was replaced with an "anti-swastika" print.

The swastika is an ancient symbol said to have represented good fortune in almost every culture in the world.

It was adopted by Adolf Hitler, thousands of years after it was first used, transforming it into a symbol of hate associated with the Third Reich.

As a fashion symbol, it was likely to prove difficult to persuade the public to get behind this clothing company's vision in working to change these perceptions.

But does this latest backlash prove that there is a line that should not be crossed - even in the publicity hungry world marketing? Or does the fact that the campaign has made the news make it a success?

What were they thinking?

It is hard to tell.

In an interview with Dazed and Confused magazine published on Sunday, the company behind the campaign, KA Designs, said that they hoped to "share the beauty of this symbol detached from the hatred associated with it".

The company said that none of its staff had experience in the fashion industry and that the design was "nothing new".

It added that it "wouldn't care" if the products were purchased by "some kind of neo-Nazi" because the message was that "peace, love and freedom win over hatred, war and prejudice".

"The swastika is coming back, together with peace, together with love, together with respect, together with Freedom," the company said in a video posted on Facebook, adding: "Introducing the new swastika."

Who would wear these shirts?

The eight-colour rainbow design, originally created in 1978 by the late San Francisco-based artist Gilbert Baker as a symbol for the gay community, is aimed at anyone who supports the LGBT movement.

However, incorporating this into a swastika design has been rejected by those it was supposed to appeal to.

Social media was abuzz on Monday with Twitter users labelling the campaign "obscene", "disgusting" and "offensive".

Others, while admitting that the swastika was originally a symbol of peace, said that it was not possible to "escape" the fact that it had become a "symbol of hate".

So is there such thing as bad publicity?

In what appears to be a complete U-turn as far as "reclaiming the swastika" goes, the original rainbow designs were replaced days after appearing online with a new "anti-swastika" range of merchandise.

Whether this entire episode serves the clothing company well with the promotion and sales of its amended design remains to be seen. The brand has yet to share information on its sales figures.

Image copyright Teespring.com
Image caption The company changed its designs just days after advertising them online

"There are certain things to avoid in marketing, this is one of those things," says Rebecca Battman, head of brand at RBL Brand Agency in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire.

When considering campaigns such as this, Ms Battman says, brands need to be conscious of the "emotional impact" of negatively perceived symbols.

She said that it is not enough to simply twist a symbol like the swastika in the hope of putting a positive spin on it because there is likely to be a "subconscious, deep-rooted sentiment against what the symbol now represents".

"There were bound to be groups that would find this [campaign] negative, they should have done some market testing."

"It may be that this company wanted the notoriety on social media," Ms Battman says, "but it seems very naive".

Ms Battman said that if a brand is considering a controversial marketing campaign on social media: "You do so at your peril".

History of the swastika

The swastika, which means "well-being" in the ancient Indian language of Sanskrit, was used by the Ancient Greeks, Celts, and Anglo-Saxons.

It is believed that the symbol was used at least 4,000 years before it was adopted by Adolf Hitler in the 1930s and appeared on the Nazi flag.

The black straight-armed hakenkreuz (hooked cross) on the distinctive white circle and red background of the Nazi flag is now inextricably linked to the atrocities committed under the Third Reich.

The swastika was banned in Germany at the end of the war and Germany tried unsuccessfully to introduce an EU-wide ban in 2007.

Controversial costumes

Last year, an online retailer was forced to withdraw a Halloween costume inspired by Kim Kardashian West's robbery ordeal in Paris in which she was tied up and held at gunpoint.

In 2015, US supermarket Walmart sparked controversy by stocking an Israeli army costume for children amid spiralling violence between Israel and the Palestinians.

In 2012, the owners of an Indian clothing store called Hitler caved in to pressure and changed the name after receiving complaints.

Related Topics

More on this story