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What’s the best reaction to hate speech in advertising?

What’s the best reaction to hate speech in advertising?

Subway Ads Jihad

This poster is part of a campaign by Pamela Geller, a blogger, author and activist who believes the United States is in danger of being “Islamified” by immigration and religious tolerance.

Ms. Gellar overcame legal challenges in New York City and San Francisco to post the ad in transit systems. San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency chose to post disclaimers beside theirs, stating their own policy against them. In New York, people have taken to defacing them.

A picture posted today in Animal New York perfectly sums up public reaction to the ads. See it after the break.


The ad on the left is the peaceful way to protest intolerance. Posted by United Methodist Women, it attempts to overcome the fear with positive messaging.

“United Methodist Women recognizes that women have always been the most significant victims of violence,” stated Executive Secretary Harriett Olson.  “We have a particular incentive to work toward peace. Religions of the world should invest in the work for peace. Peace comes because we work for it. Women know that the best.”

Ironically, that poster ended up beside a more violent (or at least, destructive) approach to countering hate. According to Animal New York:

“The modifier was a a nondescript white guy, 20′s, with a baseball hat and a utility knife. He didn’t say anything while he worked… A passerby said ‘If you did that, thank you,’ and the guy said ‘You’re welcome,’ and walked toward the trains.”

Both the United Methodist Women’s and the adbusting approach give similar messages. But one, obviously, is legal and the other is not.

Now that the ads are going up in Washington, DC, The Washington Post’s Nathan Lean has published a plea to Washingtonians not to take the latter approach:

The aim of these advertisements is to provoke — to elicit an emotional outburst that their proponents then use as evidence of the very culture war they seek to advance. They begin with the presupposition that Muslims are violent, they mercilessly antagonize and taunt them, and then, when a fringe few react poorly, they complete the self-fulfilling prophecy by patting themselves on the back and saying “we told you so.”

D.C. passersby aggravated by the inflammatory language of these advertisements — which distorts the way most Muslims understand “jihad” by conflating a fraction of violent extremists with the entire faith group — must respond. But not with canisters of spray paint or magic markers or stickers. Those reactions only feed the attention-seeking provocateurs. Instead, this hate speech must be countered with an overwhelming societal refrain that emphasizes peace and pluralism, and condemns the divisive rhetoric of these bullies with alternative public messages that are forceful and clear.

What do you think? Does there come a point at which your beliefs about freedom of speech are less important than your urge to enact illegal social justice? I can’t imagine a better place to have this discussion than right here, “where marketing and activism collide.”

I am Creative Director at Acart Communications, a Canadian Social Issues Marketing agency. Read more