Hitler Ad: Keep It Under Your Hat

German company breaks Hitler taboo, using dictator's image to sell hats.


PASSAU, Germany, April 16, 2008 — -- In Germany, the figure of Adolf Hitler has always been strictly confined to discussions of historical tragedy and national identity. Use of the Nazi dictator's image in any marketing context has been unthinkable.

Now, probably for the first time, a hat-seller in Bonn has broken the unwritten rule by advertising his products using an image of the Nazi dictator.

Thomas Weber, 43, has been selling hats for a long time; his family has been running the hat shop for over 75 years.

When business slowed down a bit, Weber got in touch with a professional agency.

He was fascinated in particular by a suggestion for an ad campaign, which places the iconic hair and moustache of the Nazi leader next to a sketch of Charlie Chaplin wearing his trademark bowler (called a derby in the United States) with the caption in English, "It's the hat."

When contacted by ABC News, Mr. Weber explained, "I was quite a bit reluctant at first, but won over fast by the rather cunning idea and the craftiness carrying the simple, straightforward message that 'hats make people'."

Asked whether he thought he'd broken a taboo by using the Nazi leader's image outside of historical context, the shop owner said, "Of course, Hitler will always be a serious issue here, and we should never forget that. But this is not really about Hitler. This is more about Charlie Chaplin and the hat."

Alexander Schill is the creative director of Serviceplan, the Hamburg, Germany-based agency that came up with the idea. "This was not about breaking a taboo," he told ABC News. "This was to get people's attention on a shoestring budget."

Asked if he was surprised by the attention the ad received, he said, "I'd be lying if I said we did not anticipate any controversial reactions, but the truth is, it was Charlie Chaplin and his hat first and the Hitler image came second. It's the hat that everybody associates with Charlie Chaplin. Just think of Chaplin in the movie 'The Great Dictator'."

"The Great Dictator," a film directed by and starring Chaplin, was first released in 1940. It is a bitter satire on Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler's murderous ideas with Chaplin as Hitler's look-a-like.

The advertisement campaign is titled "Hats make People." Mainly published in local newspapers it has now hit the Internet and has caught the attention of many young people.

Most of them, writing in Internet forums like AdsoftheWorld.com, have expressed their approval.

"Very good, very simple, excellent," writes one person. "Brilliant idea" writes another. "This is the holy grail of advertising," says yet another comment.

There is also one reaction that may reflect the young generation's attitude toward taboos about the German dictator. "Am I the only one who's getting bored by the constant Hitler/Chaplin idea-rubbish?" a visitor writes.

Germany has taken great steps in the past to ensure that Hitler-related material does not go on sale in the country. The use of Nazi emblems and denying the Holocaust are punishable crimes here.

The young generation might well be more flexible in dealing with the issue, but it is hard to say if Germans are really ready to accept Hitler's image being used for advertising purposes.

Elisabeth Jumpelt, 80, a Bonn resident, said in a telephone interview she was "quite surprised that a serious businessman of his generation could be talked into this sort of advertising."

"There is a saying in German:Kleider machen Leute, which means, fine feathers make fine birds. Charlie definitely was a fine bird — Adolf far from it. Herr Weber should have used his instinct — there must be more elegant ways to advertise — a stunning nude with a cocky hat might well boost his sales!"