It’s bad enough that Stephen Bannon, a major figure of the racist, Nazi-loving alt-right is directing the campaign of a major political candidate. Now it appears that one of the largest advertisers on TV is working a sanitized version of a symbol of the alt-right into a much-repeated commercial. The ugliest part is…it’s Volkswagen, a German company that should be more sensitive to the nuances of racial coding and cultural symbols.
The alt-right, as most readers will already know, is a loose collection of fringe organizations, angry individuals, chatrooms and websites advocating white supremacy, white nationalism, Islamophobia, anti-feminism, homophobia, antisemitism, white male superiority and nativism. The alt-right tends to be very anti-government and pro-guns.
One unofficial symbol of the alt-right is a cartoon character named Pepe the Frog, an anthropomorphized amphibian. Originally a black-and-white line drawing, Pepe quickly transformed to deep green with brown lips. He is often depicted as a frog’s head on a human body, but often he has a frog body.
A quick perusal of the Internet will reveal Pepe’s image in a large number of frightening contexts, including:
- With the legend “You will always be a n****r”
- Pepe dressed as a Nazi SS officer saying “Feels good.”
- Pepe in a KKK white hood and robe
- Pepe with a Hitler stubby moustache saying, “Kill Jews man”
- A collage photo of Pepe with Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, long-time racist provocateur Roger Stone and Trump’s sons.
- Pepe covered in Nazi insignia with the number 14 over his left eyelid and 88 over his right eyelid; to alt-righters 14 is a numeric shorthand for “we must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children” and 88 means “Heil Hitler.”
- Pepe wearing a Trump button and making fun of a Mexican family on the other side of a metal fence.
These and many other posters incorporating Pepe explain why the Anti-Defamation League has designated Pepe as a symbol of hate. Pepe’s creator has also vehemently condemned the racist and nativist uses to which the icon has been put.
But Volkswagen evidently didn’t get the memo, or is quietly trying to appeal to alt-righters.
The narrative of the TV ad for the 2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack, a four-wheel station wagon, plays out wordlessly, first to ambient sound and then to Eddie Rabbit’s “Driving My Life Away”: A millennial male with the requisite very short beard is gazing at a frog in a terrarium in his work cube. His boss knocks on the glass wall of the cube and gives him a “get that frog out of here” gesture. In the next shot, our hero is driving his Golf Alltrack out of a parking structure and into the street, onto the highway and into a woodsy road to a pond in the middle of a forest. We see the frog in a pond looking tearfully at the car. The final shots are of the guy driving the VW with the frog on the dash looking as happy as a clam, or perhaps a pollywog. “Oooh, I’m drivin’ my life a way, looking for a better….” Fadeout.
The frog looks completely like a frog in form, but it has the emotional life and expressiveness of a human, just like Pepe. He is attracted to doing something that makes young men feel good, just like Pepe (although in the case of Pepe, some of those things are socially unacceptable outside a small circle of white male supremacists). The frog hangs out with young white men, just like Pepe does. He has the same evocative eyes as Pepe does.
Don’t you think it’s a little more than coincidental that Volkswagen comes out with a commercial targeted at rural-loving (and therefore probably white) young men using an anthropomorphized frog who interacts with humans round the same time that an anthropomorphized frog who interacts with humans becomes a symbol of a political movement filled with rural-loving young white men? There were certainly a number of other terrarium animals with which the commercial’s cool dude could have bonded over the same love of driving a VW: newt, turtle, snake or a gerbil. It could have been a bird, which would have underscored the motif of speed and freedom.
But Volkswagen selected a frog that will remind some of Pepe. Especially those who know and love Pepe because he’s the same kind of, n-hating, immigrant bashing good-old boy that they are.
Marketing departments do a tremendous amount of work analyzing key branding elements, such as color, spokesperson and certainly an animal that’s going to act human. I’m sure focus groups with their target market loved the frog. I’m equally sure that someone did a thorough Internet search. When I searched for “frog” in Google, Pepe did not come up in the first five pages of results, but when I searched for “frog symbol,” Pepe as an alt-right icon comes up on the first page. Moreover, it is incredulous to think that of all the dozens of people to work on the ad—marketing managers, product managers, writers, directors, market researchers, advertising placement specialists, et. al.—none had read any of the hundreds of stories in the news media about Pepe the alt-right Frog, especially when it became an issue in the Trump campaign.
We might be able to give Volkswagen the benefit of the doubt and say its staff didn’t do their homework, but that doesn’t explain why it didn’t pull the ad as soon as the mainstream media began covering Pepe.
I’m fairly certain that Volkswagen goes out of its way not to appeal to Nazi-lovers in its home market. Why would do so in the United States? Answer is…money.
Changing the topic to the election campaign that I promised myself I would not cover again until November 9…
Those who sympathize with FBI Director Comey after he sent his weaseled letter about potentially finding more Hillary emails assert that the life-long Republican Comey would have risked being accused of a cover-up if he waited until after the election and something important turned out to be on the Weiner computer.
What these Comey supporters are really saying is that the Director was right to put his own job above the fairness of the political process. Comey must have known the mainstream and right-wing news media would pick up this large, juicy shank of veal like a pack of dogs that haven’t seen a bone in months. The only conclusion if you follow the line of the apologists is that he preferred to definitely affect the election as opposed to being accused of possible doing it after the fact.
Consider, too, the low likelihood that any of these emails will make a difference in the original conclusion: all information suggests that they’re probably duplicates of what we have already seen. Based on this low likelihood of relevancy, all Comey had to do was write a CYA memo to Attorney General Loretta Lynch saying he agreed with her recommendation to follow standard operating procedure and wait until the emails had been examined to make an announcement.
My conclusion: Comey is either a senseless puppet of the Republicans or an active participant in the second attempt to use dirty tricks to sway this election (the first being by the Russian government).
If Trump should win, it would mean that every Republican president since Reagan except for Bush I would have been elected because of dirty tricks: Nixon, by making a deal with South Vietnam to block peace negotiations; Reagan with his deal to have Iran not send home the hostages before the elections; Bush II’s brother’s nefarious voter suppression and miscounting in Florida that won the 2000 election. And now this incredibly well-timed but probably baseless smear of Hillary by the Republican Director of the FBI.