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Controversy and Design

Nicholas Oddy was brilliant. I could sit here and write all about why he was so much fun, and how he made everyone left with a smile on their face. But, instead, I want to focus on two particular parts of his talk that grabbed my attention; both of which are regarding controversy and design.

Brand History

The first of the two topics that I want to discuss is surrounding the history of brands, and whether we should consider their history as consumers. Nicholas made a comment about the Volkswagen Beetle and the German autobahn, and how he still relates them to the nazi regime. This got me thinking; should we be relating products and brands now to their pasts? Here are a few examples, just from the Second World War, of companies with 'dark pasts'.

During the Second World War, Hugo Boss made uniforms for the nazis. It's arguable that, without that contract, they wouldn't have been able to become as successful as they are today. But, when we go into House of Fraser and pick up a Boss polo shirt, we don't consider that. Should we?

IBM, also, has a controversial past. IBM designed and produced technology which was used in the Holocaust during the Second World War. The company, supposedly, supplied punch card machines which helped the Nazis keep track of people in concentration camps. This is particularly strange, with IBM being an American company. However, IBM is still a major company in 2023, and we encounter their technology on a day-to-day basis.

Mitsubishi are known to have used forced labor during the Second World War. The company also apologised in 2015 for using American prisoners of war as forced labourers during the war. Despite this, Mitsubishi has a net worth of over $26 billion and sells cars and bikes across all continents.

Coca-Cola continued to do business in Nazi Germany during the Second World War, and are said to have used labour from concentration camps to produce their products. However, it is not documented whether the executives of Coca-Cola particularly knew about the circumstances of their production in Germany at the time.

So, should we judge companies based on what they've done in the past? In general, I don't think so. But, I think we should be aware of their history. I think it also depends on how recent their negative actions were, and just how 'bad' their actions were. I'm not sure what I'd class as 'recent', but that would probably be a case by case situation. I think things get to a point where they're far enough in the past. Not buying a car from Mitsubishi in 2023 because of their forced labour of American prisoners in the 1940s would be like disliking the current German government purely because the country used to be run by nazis. I also think that - things change, and company management changes. Coca-Cola, Mitsubishi, IBM and Hugo Boss are not run by the same people with the same objectives as they were in the 1940s, and it would be completely unfair to judge them the same.


The second thing that I wanted to touch on was a discussion that was had during Nicholas' talk, which was about controversial products and campaigns.

It seems that, day to day, we read about celebrities doing controversial things. Whether it's a comment from Jeremy Clarkson in the sun, something Piers Morgan has said on his new show or a tweet from Elon Musk or Donald Trump, controversial things are put before us constantly. Nine times out of ten, these controversial things are not accidental. Controversy is a tool designed to get people thinking, talking and doing things; whether that's rallying behind an MP or buying a product.

Nicholas showed us a product by designers Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby. The product was a blood bag in the shape of a teddy bear, originally designed to be a more comforting blood bag for children in hospitals. However, Dunne and Raby commissioned an exhibition at the Science Museum in 2004, where it was reimagined as a blood bag which holds the blood of domestic pets. The blood from the blood bag then powers a radio. The idea behind it was to raise awareness of the use of animals in the modern-day production of food and products. A lot of people would happily eat meat, but wouldn't use their dog's blood to power a radio. The use of the child-like, teddy bear shaped blood bag made the design more appealing to children, which obviously increased it's controversy.

One member of the class was very vocal about how they didn't understand the point in this product. They spent quite a while discussing forwards and backwards with Nicholas about why it was made, and what the purpose of it was. I think that the purpose of it was exactly what was happening before me - to trigger a discussion. They wanted people to talk, and discuss and argue. The were using controversy in order to spark debate, and it obviously worked.

Likewise, at the end of 2022, the French fashion company Balenciaga released an advertising campaign for their new bags. Balenciaga has always been a relatively controversial company, and tend to, regularly, push the boundaries. For this particular campaign, they were advertising bags in the shape of teddy bears, which have what appear to be sexual, BDSM harnesses. In a similar way to the teddy bear blood bag, Balenciaga knew that the bag shape was child-like, and used children to advertise the bags. This was extremely controversial, and I think it faced a lot more backlash than they were expecting. Balenciaga were also facing issues with another advertising campaign at the time. Eventually, they removed the campaign and publicly apologised. The controversy from this, however, brought them back into the public eye. Whether it did more harm than good for their brand is yet to be seen.

Overall, I think that controversy is obviously a powerful tool in forcing a reaction and provoking change. However, there has to be limits to what you do. Some things are unacceptable, but where do we draw that line?

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