Seats on 42nd Street subway Shuttle cars are wrapped with symbols from Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, intended to carry commuters into the alternate history of the Amazon TV series, The Man in the High Castle, in which the Axis Powers were victorious. [UPDATE: Amazon has decided to pull the ads.]
“Half the seats in my car had Nazi insignias inside an American flag, while the other half had the Japanese flag in a style like the World War II design,” said straphanger Ann Toback. “So I had a choice, and I chose to sit on the Nazi insignia because I really didn’t want to stare at it.”
Toback said she doesn’t object to the TV show as a work of fiction, but insists, “I shouldn’t have to sit staring at a Nazi insignia on my way to work.”
As it happens, Toback is the executive director of The Workmen’s Circle, an organization founded in 1892 that fosters Jewish identity through culture and social justice causes. The group also traces its resistance to European Fascism to 1933.
MTA spokesperson Adam Lisberg confirmed that one Shuttle train was decked out in imagery from the online TV series, using conformable vinyl wrapping. The show’s advertising campaign began with 260 subway station posters on November 9, and the Shuttle wrap runs November 15 through December 14.
Amazon didn’t immediately reply with a comment on the subway ads.
Many New Yorkers and their families are from Asian nations once brutally occupied by the Japanese Empire. For them the seats opposite the Nazi insignias might be just as jarring.
Lisberg said the advertising campaign was arranged through OUTFRONT Media. Neither the MTA nor OUTFRONT Media would disclose financial terms, and Lisberg defended the campaign as meeting new MTA standards adopted in April.
“The updated standards prohibit political advertisements. Unless you’re saying that you believe Amazon is advocating for a Nazi takeover of the United States, then it meets the standards. They’re advertising a show,” Lisberg said.
Pressed that the Nazi Reichsadler eagle—Hitler’s adaptation of the Roman and Holy Roman Empire’s imperial standards—isn't a work of fiction but carries personal and historical resonance, Lisberg added, “I’m not trying to be cute. Despite your, or my, or anyone’s feelings about a particular ad, we have to be guided by the ad standards we put forward.”
Those same standards stalled ads for menstrual underwear, also designed by OUTFRONT, though the MTA later approved the images after a public outcry.
The MTA does occasionally reverse course and remove advertising, Lisberg said, noting that in his three years at the agency two campaigns came down: A Freelancer’s Union advertisement about “wage theft” and, just this past October, an Amalgamated Bank poster advocating for a $15 minimum wage. This only galled Toback further, given that Workmen’s Circle supported the minimum wage raise cause.
“Raising wages is not politically neutral but putting up Nazi insignia somehow is?” she asked. “It boggles the mind that someone could take the time to decorate an entire subway train with Nazi insignia and not think, ‘This is a poor choice.’”
Evan Bernstein, the Anti-Defamation League’s New York regional director, says the ads fail to provide riders with enough context to accompany the Nazi imagery.
"On the television program, which explains this is the notion of an America controlled by Hitler, you get that context. On the train, seeing the American flag paired with a Nazi symbol is viscerally offensive, because there is no context as to what it means. The fact that the flag is spread across the seats only compounds the effect.
"This ad campaign has a feel of exploiting things that are so sensitive to so many people."
Bernstein added, "We’re not saying that people don’t have a right to express themselves. We’re just saying that it has a level of insensitivity. We would hope that the people who distributed it will think twice about putting these symbols on more public transportation.”
A spokesperson for OUTFRONT Media tells us they have received no complaints about the ads, and noted that the campaign also passed the company’s internal review, which adheres to standards “close to the MTA’s.”
Those MTA advertising standards also call for the agency to “Maintain a safe and welcoming environment for all MTA employees and customers.” Toback says these ads failed that test.
“I definitely didn’t feel welcome this morning.”
Erik Baard is a native New Yorker and freelance writer. The New York state government designated him the "Greenest New Yorker" for his environmental volunteer projects.