Sunday, August 26, 2007

Taste Test

What in the world were advertisers in New Zealand thinking when they promoted the "Hell" pizza firm with a billboard of Hitler?

Well, this:

"[We] thought that people would be able to see a funny side to a guy doing a 'sieg heil' salute with a piece of pizza in his hand,"Kirk MacGibbon of the Auckland-based Cinderella advertising agency said.
Naturally, this has been a feast for the blogosphere.

Naturally, virtually all the reports go on to note that the pizza company has a reputation for going out of its way to shock people: earlier mailing out condoms to promote the "lust" pizza in its "seven deadly sins" series, and now promising to replace the Hitler billboards with one of Pope Benedict and a quotation from him about heaven and hell.

Naturally, the advertiser has a pseudo-high-minded excuse (in addition to: "like, well, we had no idea..."):
"If you laugh at something, you take its power away." However he added that "there are certain things we are still unable to laugh about" and said there had been a handful of complaints from Jewish residents.
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In another report, he grudgingly acknowledged:

"We do recognise there were some horrendous things done and if people are not seeing it as lampooning, we are dealing with a slightly different animal and we will back down."

This of course is facile and cynical argumentation that by definition justifies anything and everything and shifts the blame from the offender to the offended. The pizza scandal is in itself trivial, but MacGibbon inadvertently points to a serious question: Just when does something tragic become an appropriate vehicle for humor? Is it just a matter of the passage of time and relaxing of sensibilities? How many days or weeks passed before jokes about the "Challenger" disaster could be told in good company? In that case, I would wager, the gallows humor was the frustrated reaction to the media exploitation of the tragedy and the utter banality and sanctimoniousness of most popular discourse. The much-discussed "end of irony" didn't last long after 9-11 (1, 2), though we still don't tell jokes about the victims. When can we expect a burning cross and the hooded figure of a Ku Klux Klansman to show up in an advertisement for barbecue products?

The playwright Rolf Hochhuth reflected on a related problem in the "Sidelights on History" that he appended to his play, The Deputy (Der Stellvertreter; 1963), which caused a worldwide scandal when it accused the Vatican of silence during the Holocaust. Presciently prophesying the attempted canonization of Pope Pius XII, he worried that, with the passage of time, cynical or brutal rulers would increasingly come to be appreciated as “great men,” their sins forgotten or relativized. If today many admire Napoleon, could Hitler be far behind? he asked. Nearly half a century later, no respectable voices have taken that fateful step. One is entitled to wonder which is worse, though: to see “greatness” or humor instead of crime?

That some will joke about cruelty and inhumanity is inevitable. That others should call them to account is necessary. It’s not about political correctness or humorlessness. It’s about maintaining a certain moral seriousness and intellectual restraint.

One is left wondering why the popular culture so often and readily dips into the well of historical tragedy in search of raw material. Lack of imagination is no doubt one reason.

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