Some thoughts on Amazon’s problematic ad campaign for “The Man in the High Castle”

The US genre sphere is currently awash with discussion of new SFF TV and streaming video shows, which makes me quite jealous, since it’s the TV doldrums over here in Germany at the moment. But from my US friends, I hear eager debate about Jessica Jones, Into the Badlands, The Man in the High Castle and The Expanse.

I’ll have more to say about Jessica Jones (which I enjoy a lot two episodes in) in a future post. And for other people’s commentary on these various shows, check out my weekly link round-up every Friday over at the Speculative Fiction Showcase.

But for now, I want to talk about the other streaming video series that has everybody excited, namely The Man in the High Castle, based on the eponymous Philip K. Dick novel.

Now I’m not going to watch The Man in the High Castle, because I intensely dislike alternate histories set in worlds where the Nazis and/or the Japanese won World War II. I go a bit deeper into the reasons why I dislike that particular trope (and it is a trope and a very hackneyed one at that) in this post on a completely different TV show. But in short, I don’t like “The Nazis win WWII” alternate histories, because they tend to be illogical, full of anachronisms due to bad research and often just plain offensive.

Now the original novel The Man in the High Castle is actually one of the better takes on the idea. Nor is it offensive, which surprised me considering that I have read some massively offensive work by Philip K. Dick (“The Pre-Persons” is nearly on a level with Randall Garrett’s “The Queen Bee” for misogyny and sheer offensiveness). Nonetheless, I’m not going to watch the series, because a) I’ve got enough shows to watch that I’m actually enjoying and b) the trailers I’ve seen didn’t actually fill me with confidence that the series would capture Dick’s novel well.

For starters, there’s way too much focus on Nazis, whereas the novel is largely set in Japanese controlled California and not in the Nazi controlled Eastern US. Though the production designer at least tries to avoid obvious anachronisms as the Misfits episode mentioned above, though I don’t believe that Communist East Germany is the best model for what a Nazi controlled America would look like. For starters, it was a completely different system, though there is some overlap between Fascist and Stalinist aesthetics. I’m also not convinced that there wouldn’t have been space age aesthetics in a hypothetical Nazi controlled America, especially since the Third Reich has space travel in the novel. But at least the production team are trying.

I’m a bit more worried by the fact that The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, the novel within a novel, an alternate history about how the Allies won WWII, which is explicitly not our timeline (yes, Dick actually answered the question I asked in the other post whether timelines where the Nazis won WWII have alternate history novels about the Allies winning), is replaced in the series by an underground movie featuring the usual WWII newsreel footage from our timeline. Though Paul Levinson seems to like the use of newsreels. And given Hollywood’s preference for formulaic storytelling, I’m pretty sure that Dick’s plotting by I-Ching did not make it into the series either.

Finally, there was the anachronistic music playing over the trailer (“Mad World”, a song from 1982 in the Gary Jules version from 2001, i.e. a song that likely wouldn’t exist in this alternate reality at all). Supposedly, the actual show also features “Edelweiss”, a sappy, faux-folksy song from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The Sound of Music, a work which again wouldn’t exist in the alternate timeline of The Man in the High Castle at all. Never mind that Germans and Austrians either don’t know The Sound of Music or dislike it, because we’ve had an IMO far superior version of the same story with Die Trapp Familie (available on YouTube here), which featured actual German and Austrian folksongs instead of the Rodgers/Hammerstein songs.

So in short, I’m not interested in watching The Man in the High Castle, though I have no problem with its existence. If anything, Philip K. Dick is due another decent adaptation of his work after the many lackluster attempts of recent years. I’m not sure if The Man in the High Castle is a decent adaptation and in fact I’ve got my doubts, as described above, but it’s got to be better than some of the other travesties visited on poor Dick in the past twenty years (Minority Report, anyone? Or how about Paycheck?).

So imagine my surprise when I went to visit (I shop via, but use for links) on Sunday night only to find myself faced with a huge screen-filling ad banner full of Nazi imagery, including a New York skyline festooned with swastikas and the Statue of Liberty doing a “Heil Hitler” salute. I did a doubletake and then realised that this was just as an ad for The Man in the High Castle. Which didn’t make visiting an e-commerce website and finding myself faced with Nazi imagery any less offensive. And I was lucky that I was at home and alone. Cause I really wouldn’t want to open Amazon’s homepage in a public place and have people giving me the side-eye, because they think that I’m looking at Neo Nazi sites. In fact, if someone should catch you looking at a site full of Nazi imagery at work, it might endanger your job, at least here in Germany. This is pretty much the definition of Not Safe For Work. Considering how strict Amazon is regarding even extremely mild nudity on book covers, I find it problematic

So I tweeted the following and largely forgot about it:

Today then I got an e-mail from fellow indie SFF writer Marilyn Peake who sent me a link to a Mashable post and asked me if I’d seen it yet, since I was quoted therein. Turns out that the Mashable post by Patrick Culp was about Amazon’s ad campaign for The Man in the High Castle, which involved not just plastered its homepage with Nazi imagery, but also involved swastikas on the US flag and the Imperial Japanese banner emblazoned on the seats of New York City subway cars. Which is just… – okay, I have no words for that subway car. Though I find it interesting that people are sitting on the Nazi side in the photo, but not on the Japanese side. Cause I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have sat down on the swastika emblazoned seats.

When I showed the photos of the subway car in the Mashable article and the Amazon ad banner, as displayed in the same article (since it seems to have vanished from Amazon’s homepage, thank goodness), to a German friend, she was quite literally speechless.

Visiting Twitter, I also found that my tweet had gotten a lot of views, likes and retweets. There were also a few replies, including a bunch by trolls who apparently decided to project their hatred of allegedly over-sensitive US college students (who seem to be the current pet hate of US rightwingers*) on me, which is pretty fucking ridiculous, because a) I’m not American and b) haven’t been a student in ten years or so. But I guess trolls can’t be expected to actually check out someone before typing abuse at them.

Besides, here in Germany there is an added issue with using Nazi imagery in advertising, since publicly displaying “symbols associated with organisations hostile to the German constitution” is actually illegal in Germany. There are exceptions for educational, critical and artistic purposes, hence historical photographs in school textbooks and movies about the Third Reich may use the swastika, the double sighel rune and other banned symbols. The series The Man in the High Castle itself would be covered by this exception as well, since it’s clearly a work of art.

Advertising, however, is not art and therefore Nazi imagery may not be used for advertising purposes, even for films and TV series about the Third Reich. Even posters for historical films about the Third Reich like e.g. Downfall usually avoid showing the swastika. And indeed the site uses a completely different swastika-free ad, which manages to be evocative without breaking German law or being offensive.

ETA: Paul Levinson also weighs in on the Amazon ad campaign.

ETA 2: And the swastika emblazoned subway cars are gone. Good riddance. Honestly, you can advertise this show without Nazi imagery.

*Personally I blame that “Coddling of the American mind” article, which The Atlantic pushes at every opportunity. Because the US obviously has no bigger problems than college students asking for trigger warnings.

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5 Responses to Some thoughts on Amazon’s problematic ad campaign for “The Man in the High Castle”

  1. Just one quick comment: the Japanese part of the story is given more time than the Nazi part in the television series. I didn’t specifically measure the time, but there were episodes which were almost entirely about what was happening in Japanese San Francisco. Also, a lot of the early action takes place in the neutral zone.

    • Cora says:

      Thanks for the info, Paul. Good to know that the series isn’t ignoring the novel’s focus on Japanese San Francisco to focus on the more sensationalistic Nazi parts.

  2. The Archandroid says:

    The I-Ching definitely makes it into the show. And for accuracy’s sake, the awful subway ads don’t actually involve any swastikas (unless they’re on the show posters on the walls, I guess, they’re definitely not on the seats). They use the eagle and iron cross.

    • Cora says:

      Good to know that the I-Ching does make it into the show, since it’s such an important aspect of the book. And I noted that the subway ads don’t include any actual swastikas in my follow-up post, once I’d seen a video which offered a better look at that train.

  3. Barbara says:

    Love this show….It is very well done. The physical way the US looks is amazing and after a while, you could believe this could happen.

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