It seemed like a good idea at the time.
Procter & Gamble had come up with a new, more concentrated formulation for its Ariel detergent that would give German hausfrauen more washes per box. So what could be more natural than to highlight that on the packaging? And to do it in a way that ties in with Germany's most popular sport, soccer?
They apparently were unaware of what Consumerist.com calls "the finer details of neo-Nazi culture." That unawareness triggered a blitzkrieg of social media complaints, forcing them to scrap the packaging (along with the detergent it contained).
Before the new formula, a box of Ariel detergent was good for 83 loads of laundry. The new formulation added five more, for a total of 88.
"We wanted to advertise for 83 plus 5, that is five extra washes beyond the 83 usually in this package size," a P&G spokeswoman told German news agency DPA.
They also wanted to promote their sponsorship of Mannschaft, the German national soccer team, in the lead-up to the World Cup.
The packaging highlighted this with a design resembling the back of a white soccer jersey (Mannschaft's color), with a big number 88 and the brand name, Ariel, above it, where the player's name would ordinarily go. There was also a tagline saying "new concentration" on the package's back.
At the very top of the package front, high-visibility, big red type on a high-visibility yellow band proclaimed, "83 + 5 Waschen GRATIS" (83 + 5 washes FREE). That should have made the meaning of 88 clear enough.
But not in a country with draconian laws criminalizing the use of Nazi symbols and slogans.
To lots of Germans, writes law professor Jonathan Turley, the packaging "does not suggests [sic] a powerfully whitening soap as much as a white power soap."
Here, apparently, is why:
- "H" being the eighth letter of the alphabet, and the number 88 containing two eights in a row, the number of washes suggests "HH," the initial letters of "Heil Hitler."
- By the same reasoning, Ariel liquid's packaging, which highlights the 18 washes you can get out of one bottle, suggests the initials of Adolf Hitler.
- The brand name – Ariel – is just one letter away from "Arier," which is how you say "Aryan," in German – assuming you're allowed to.
- The "new concentration" tag line on the back supposedly suggests not more densely concentrated powder, but concentration camps.
In the face of complaints about all these nuances, P&G immediately yanked the product from store shelves, cancelled all future deliveries and apologized on their Facebook page, saying, "P&G is committed to the values of tolerance, respect, diversity and humanity. We regret if people came to see the wrong associations and we resolutely dissociate ourselves from any right-wing (Nazi) body of thought."
But should they have? Professor Turley, for one, doesn't think so.
"While I am certainly sympathetic to the Germans in seeking to end the scourge of fascism," he writes,
I have long been a critic of the German laws prohibiting certain symbols and phrases[.] I view it as not just a violation of free speech but a futile effort to stamp but [sic] extremism by barring certain symbols. Instead, extremists have rallied around an underground culture and embraced symbols that closely resemble those banned by the government. I fail to see how arresting a man for a Hitler ringtone is achieving a meaningful level of deterrence, even if you ignore the free speech implications. The question is whether skin heads should now be responsible for banning the use of actual numbers.
But though P&G's response may or may not have been the right moral decision, it was the right business decision. In the marketplace, facts matter far less than consumer perceptions. If consumers perceive neo-Nazi symbolism in packaging, then brands must act as if their packaging actually has neo-Nazi symbolism. Whether or not such symbolism in fact exists. And whether or not it was intended. Because to consumers, their perceptions are facts, and advertisers ignore that fact at their peril.