Did Amazon goose-step over the line?

Does “any press is good press” still apply when the subject is the Axis Powers? Amazon Prime found themselves with plenty of press recently when a subway wrap they did in support of their series The Man in the High Castle sparked public outrage and a media storm in New York City.

Based on a best-selling book and documentary about an alternative history where Germany and Japan win the Second World War, the out-of-home campaign for The Man in the High Castle had been generating plenty of buzz. But the approach Amazon took for the subway car wrap seemed to push even media savvy New Yorkers too far. While the imagery on the outside of the cars was the same as that used on billboards, Japanese Rising Sun and Nazi Iron Eagle symbols were used on the seats along either side of the subway car, requiring riders to “pick a side.” Calls for the wrap’s removal and an Amazon boycott quickly followed. Amazon ended up pulling the ads at the end of November.

Bob Knorpp, host of The BeanCast podcast and Mediassociates’ director of client development, recently asked a panel of industry insiders to weigh in. Was this campaign insensitive or an effective experiential marketing stunt?

Peter Shankman, author, speaker and consultant of, thinks the mistake was a matter of context. “The ad imagery wasn’t offensive, it just wasn’t well thought out. Not enough people knew about the show so they had no understanding of what they were seeing.” But, Bob pushed back, the entire train was covered in Amazon Prime logos; you couldn’t avoid the fact the imagery was associated with a television show. And they had done billboards with the same imagery without an outcry. How do promote a show about Nazis taking over America without showing some form of Nazi symbolism?

“I had no idea the show existed until the controversy started, and I wondered if this was intentional,” said Len Kendall, communications VP at Carrot Creative. “From a marketing standpoint it’s brilliant.” But he also wondered why this imagery was found to be more offensive than other nasty parts of history.

Colin Glaum, principal at Benevolent Mercenaries, had a first-hand take. “I ride that shuttle frequently. I thought the billboards were provocative in their own right, showing U.S. landmarks draped with Nazi symbolism. It stopped me in my tracks. It’s a provocative take on history and I don’t know how you present anything else but what they did to make these ads.”

Peter thought the placement made the difference. “When you see images of landmarks covered in Nazi symbolism, you’re looking at it on a billboard. On a subway you are sitting there, it is much more in your face and less advertising.”

Bob agreed, “Having ridden the subway during the promotion and being familiar with the show, the bigger problem was that they used the Rising Sun and Iron Eagle symbols on the seats. That’s what made people upset. It’s not contextual; you’re looking at that seat, and not focusing on the rest of campaign around you. As a standalone image, it’s problematic.”

Peter agreed, “There are degrees of declination. An ad has a certain distance; it’s a poster or a form of entertainment. But with the imagery on the seat, there is some tacit implication that I am associated with this because I’m sitting on it.”

So was this an effective immersive experience for Amazon Prime?

As Peter said, “At the end of the day they got exactly the impact they wanted. And while it was no doubt offensive to some, it was meant to be provocative.” Susan Scarlet, Gongos vice president of strategic branding thinks the subway wrap didn’t rise to the level of an immersive experience. “I’m not sure a static ad on a seat is an immersive experience, as I define it.” And Bob observed a similar verdict during a debate on Facebook between Mike Monello and Steve Coulson of Campfire fame: as an immersive experience it was pretty lacking. It was only successful in provoking a reaction.