New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority would like to welcome one and all to a dystopian alternate history in which the Axis powers of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan control America’s subways and put up spiffy and horrible insignias everywhere. Amazon is hoping to advertise for its upcoming series The Man In The High Castle, which imagines what America would look like if we had lost World War II, with Nazi Reichsadler eagle signs and Japanese imperial flags all over a Shuttle train.
The ads definitely convey the idea of the show in a way that is attracting attention. But this may be the exception to the rule that all publicity is good. “I shouldn’t have to sit staring at a Nazi insignia on my way to work,” the executive director of Jewish identity and social group the Workmen’s Circle, Ann Toback, told the Gothamist.
As a colleague said, it’s difficult to think of an ad campaign more obviously inappropriate than a promotional Nazi train.
An MTA spokesman defended allowing the advertising, which is set to run on a single shuttle train from November 15 through December 14. “[Our] updated standards prohibit political advertisements. Unless you’re saying that you believe Amazon is advocating for a Nazi takeover of the United States, then it meets the standards. They’re advertising a show,” Adam Lisberg told the Gothamist.
The MTA appears to be hiding behind its revised April 2015 advertising policy, which blocked all political advertising in order to avoid being obliged to run controversial and sometimes hateful political speech on First Amendment grounds. That new policy, the MTA now seems to saying, would not have prohibited this ad because it’s not political. “I’m not trying to be cute. Despite your, or my, or anyone’s feelings about a particular ad, we have to be guided by the ad standards we put forward,” Lisberg said.
The thing is that these ads—which could be seen as offensive to Jews or to New Yorkers who had families brutalized by Imperial Japan’s own pretty horrible war machine—seem like they could well have been prohibited had the MTA merely decided to block them. In announcing the new regulations in April, the MTA said they were meant to maintain “a safe and welcoming environment for all MTA employees and customers.”
The rules also said the MTA had the ability to control what advertising it would allow and listed prohibited content. One of those prohibitions includes the following:
[Ads that contain] material that demeans or disparages an individual or group of individuals. For purposes of determining whether an advertisement contains such material, the MTA will determine whether a reasonably prudent person, knowledgeable of the MTA’s ridership and using prevailing community standards, would believe that the advertisement contains material that is abusive to, or debases the dignity of, an individual or group of individuals.
Whether you think a reasonably prudent person might consider a train full of Nazi Reichsadler eagles to be demeaning or disparaging, it is a judgment call. And it’s one the MTA could have almost certainly decided the other way without a legal threat from Amazon had they wanted.
Either way, maybe the MTA should consider implementing some policies prohibiting advertising that is in insanely awful taste. And Amazon might want to rethink its promotional strategies.
Update, Nov. 24, 2015, 5:20 p.m.: Amazon has decided to pull the ad.