The Hilarity of Evil?

A recent shampoo commercial for Turkish cosmetic company Biomen has been pulled following a flood of criticism. The commercial features archival footage of Adolph Hitler overdubbed in Turkish with audio exhorting male viewers to use a more masculine shampoo. It has sparked an online firestorm, and has been widely condemned by Turkey’s 20,000 strong Jewish community, as well as by various Jewish organizations—including the Anti-Defamation League, who were reportedly “repulsed” by the ad.

Now I’m not going to begin to defend the Biomen commercial. It’s obviously in poor taste, especially in a country with its own genocidal history. What I will do is draw the reader’s attention to another commercial featuring genocidal dictators and pose a question: Why did this commercial escape the kind of harsh criticism leveled at Biomen?

The commercial in question is a 2011 spot from South Africa-based BBQ chicken chain Nando’s, which features Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe galavanting about with Idi Amin, Mao Zedong, Muammar Gaddafi, and others. The ad (which is hilarious) was eventually pulled from the air, but only because the company’s Zimbabwean employees started receiving death threats from a Mugabe affiliated youth gang. And while there was a bit of an online fuss, the majority of feedback was positive, and the commercial received a much more favourable media treatment than has shampoo Hitler. So what gives? Why is it ok for Robert Mugabe and Idi Amin to shill for BBQ chicken while Hitler-endorsed shampoo is a big no-no?

Some might argue that Hitler and the holocaust represent a kind of pinnacle of human evil that is fundamentally different from anything before or since, and is therefore off limits (although the hundreds of thousands of people beaten, tortured, and starved to death by Idi Amin and Chairman Mao—or even the handful of white farmers brutally murdered by Mugabe’s thugs—might beg to differ on this point). Others might point out that trivializing the Holocaust robs it of its power as a symbol of evil, thereby preparing the ground for future atrocities. After all, what can the famous maxim “never again” possibly mean in a world where Hitler offers the final solution to dandruff and split ends?

Neither of these arguments is particularly satisfying. And neither of them really makes sense in a world where we sit back and raise cane over a Turkish Shampoo commercial while mass killings are being carried out in neighbouring Syria (not to mention brutal ongoing conflicts we seem willing to ignore in the DRC, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Sudan).

In the end, the real reason why the Biomen commercial has failed so miserably is not that it’s particularly immoral or distasteful (although it certainly is).  It’s just that it’s not that funny.