International Business: Capitalists both benefit and suffer from use of communist imagery in marketing

Published: Friday, Jan. 20 2012 7:00 a.m. MST

A boy walks in front of a mural depicting Nicaragua's national hero Augusto C. Sandino, left, and one of Cuba's Revolutionary leaders, Ernesto 'Che' Guevara, in Esteli, Nicaragua, Sunday Jan. 8, 2012.rn

Associated Press

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Some marketing rules should be too obvious to merit stating here. Unfortunately, when those rules are broken by large corporations with otherwise fantastic marketing departments, we realize that what should “go without saying” may actually deserve repeating.

For example, companies should probably not take the image of a man who has killed hundreds or thousands of the ancestors of one’s customers and use it in a marketing campaign. Believe it or not, this is the faux pas Mercedes-Benz committed when it included an image of communist revolutionary Ernesto Che Guevara in a keynote presentation at last week’s International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.

"Some colleagues still think that car-sharing borders on communism," said Dieter Zetsche, chairman of Daimler AG and head of Mercedes-Benz, in front of a large image of Che, whose beret was altered to include the Mercedes logo emblazoned on the front. "But if that's the case, ‘viva la revoluciÓn!’ ”

Cuban exiles, together with their family members and elected representatives, immediately cried foul. Cuban-born author Fabiola Santiago wrote a particularly interesting editorial on this topic in the Miami Herald, including concise background information and emphatic quotes from Floridians and offended Mercedes customers.

“Every time I see this racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, misogynist killer used stupidly as a capitalist tool, a mindless fashion accessory or whenever I hear him defended by mindless academics, political activists, ‘intellectuals’ or pro-fascist celebrities like Alice Walker or Sean Penn, I want to throw up,” Juan Carlos Espinosa, associate dean at Florida International University, posted on his Facebook page, according to Santiago.

At the very least, Zetsche did not compare car-sharing to “socialism” and illustrate it with the image of one of Germany’s most infamous National Socialist Party leaders and the traditional salute.

Daimler AG, maker of Mercedes-Benz, apologized but did not offer any detailed explanation. Many were left wondering why anyone representing the German automaker would think the Che image was acceptable.

Perhaps the company did not realize that this was a more politically sensitive topic in the western hemisphere. Advertisers have used Che’s well-recognized image to promote countless brands around the world. Renault cars in Egypt, Converse shoes in Poland and Pepsi Max soda in Russia are a few examples. Naturally, some markets like Brazil are more receptive to this image, but the same icon has been more controversial when promoting, say, a Cuban restaurant in Jersey City, N.J., or an auto race in Florida.

In 2006, U.S. customers complained to the retail giant Target when it carried compact disc storage cases that displayed the Che emblem. The company offered an apology and immediately removed the offending items from its shelves.

How ironic it is that so many capitalists, from Fortune 500 businesses to T-shirt vendors at Occupy Wall Street protests, are profiting from the image of this Marxist. The irony seems even thicker when we learn that the photographer who snapped the original photo once sued a vodka maker for unauthorized use of the likeness in marketing.

“The fact that the image of socialist revolutionary Che Guevara has been used as a capitalist tool to sell everything from T-shirts to beers … must have Che rolling over in his grave,” writes Australian marketing strategist Chris Maloney on his blog, Innovate or Die. “That is why when I saw this T-shirt in BogotÁ, Colombia, featuring ‘CliChe' wearing Dior sunglasses and listening to an iPod, I had to buy it.”

The blogger punctuated this post with a photo of his T-shirt displaying the word “CLICHÉ” and the Che likeness, which resembled a similarly satirical image used on a 2006 cover of Communication Arts magazine. Communication Arts used a Nike logo on Che’s beret instead of the Dior sunglasses.

Perhaps, due to the fame of this image, and the fact that this image is often displayed without any background information, the creator of the Mercedes PowerPoint presentation did not really know the history behind this man or assumed the public had been sufficiently desensitized to Che’s history. Maybe they were one of the many represented by the Che T-shirts that read, “I don’t know who this is, but my friends say he’s cool,” or “Don’t know who this guy is, but he sure sells a lot of T-shirts!

Cuban exiles in the United States understandably could not let this opportunity pass without educating the public about the real man behind the T-shirt. However, let us hope the gaffe by Mercedes was simply the result of naivetÉ and, consequently, an opportunity to become more politically and internationally aware. As Santiago said in her column, this is now “a case study for advertising and marketing departments around the world.”

Adam Wooten is director of translation services at Lingotek. He also teaches a course on translation technology at Brigham Young University. Email: awooten@lingotek.com. Follow him on Twitter at AdamWooten.

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