Like any sub-culture, the “alt-right” uses brands, apparel and products to distinguish who is in, and who is out. In recent years, the white supremacist movement has claimed more than a dozen brands, products and celebrities as its own, to the dismay of those tarnished by it.
By linking themselves to credible symbols, however tenuously, provocateurs can thrust themselves above a crowded field preaching a similar ideology, and rally people behind them. This tactic is even more charged after the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, turned deadly last August when James Fields allegedly drove a car into a crowd of counter-protesters murdering Heather Heyer, 32, and injuring 19 others.
What should companies do when their brands are hijacked by groups with unsavory affiliations? Steer clear, says Angelo Carusone, president of left-leaning media watchdog Media Matters for America. “I rarely say this, but it’s almost better to ignore the trolls,” Carusone says, because most mainstream customers never learn of the hijacking in the first place.
When the attention does reach the mainstream, companies must take a stance, says Richard Levick, who runs his eponymous communications firm. Politics is business now. “Companies are recognizing they have a role in our democracy, a leadership role,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s far better to err on the side of history, democracy and the Constitution then kowtow to vitriolic bullies.”
What brands are now enthusiastically endorsed by the alt-right? Quartz compiled a list:
The pizza chain’s CEO John Schnatter donated to Donald Trump’s campaign and opposes Obamacare (the Affordable Care Act). But it was his attack on the NFL for its response to kneeling players, blaming it for disappointing slow pizza sales, that rallied the far-right to the company.
“The NFL has hurt us,” he said of the league, which Papa John officially sponsors. “We are totally disappointed that the NFL and its leadership did not resolve the ongoing situation to the satisfaction of all parties long ago,” Schnatter told investors. No other NFL sponsors would confirm declining sales as a result of the controversy.
The comment inspired neo-nazi Andrew Anglin of the website Daily Stormer to declare Papa John’s the “Official Pizza of the Aryan Master Race.” Other alt-right figures then launched a boycott of Pizza Hut for its CEO’s statement that the NFL protests had not hurt sales. The Daily Stormer then featured a pizza with a pepperoni arranged in a swatiska to mark the occasion.
Papa John’s responded. “We condemn racism in all forms and any and all hate groups that support it. We do not want these individuals or groups to buy our pizza,” a spokesman told the Louisville Courier-Journal, “ Later, Papa John’s account tweeted an emoji of a raised middle finger disowning “those guys.”
“Condemn us all you want, but we will continue to buy your pizza to support your struggle against the politically correct agenda,” Matthew Heimbach, 26, chairman of the white nationalist Traditionalist Workers Party, told The Washington Post (paywall). “We have to prove that we are a reliable economic, social, and political bloc within American politics.”
White supremacists don’t have a house band, but they do their best to sully mainstream artists with their own brand. Thus far, the far right has settled on Taylor Swift and Depeche Mode.
In February this year, white supremacist Richard Spencer dubbed rockers Depeche Mode the “official band of the alt-right” at the annual conservative gathering CPAC. He later recanted, claiming “his tongue was firmly in cheek” but cast doubt on this later by saying their music has “a bit of a fascist element, too” and the band “has already written all the anthems the #AltRight needs.” (It’s not entirely clear which songs Spencer was referring to, but he claims the song “People are People” is “also about racial differences.”)
“That’s pretty ridiculous,” a representative of the band later told Esquire. “Depeche Mode has no ties to Richard Spencer or the alt-right and does not support the alt-right movement.”
Taylor Swift’s saga is darker. The Daily Stormer called the country crossover star an “Aryan goddess” who is a “neo-Nazi sleeper agent.” This fevered conspiracy theory appears to spring from an absurd source: a teenage Pinterest user who first attributed Adolf Hitler quotes to Swift as a way of parodying memes misattributing quotes to Marilyn Monroe, reports Broadly.
Swift never responded directly to the Daily Stormer, but answered other accusations linking her to white supremacy, saying that “Ms. Swift has repeatedly and consistently denounced white supremacy,” in a statement from her lawyers (pdf).
The Charlottesville rally is perhaps among the worst product placements in history. Hundreds of marchers descended on the Virginia town carrying lit torches made by the TIKI Brand, owned by Wisconsin-based Lamplight Farms.
TIKI was quick to renounce the group’s use of its products, usually associated with lawn parties, on its Facebook page: “We do not support their message or the use of our products in any way….TIKI Brand is not associated in any way with the events that took place in Charlottesville and are deeply saddened and disappointed.”
Pepe the Frog is a cartoon created by artist Matt Furie in 2005, featuring a listless, slacker amphibian who specializes in making crude comments. The alt-right elevated Pepe as a white supremacist icon in the dark recesses of 4chan, Reddit and similar websites. Although Furie “killed off” the character after trying to reclaim it from the alt-right, it has lived on in memes including Nazi Pepe and Hitler Pepe, and at least one children’s book.
“The Adventures of Pepe and Pede” was written by Eric Hauser, a former Texas assistant principal, to “break down the barriers of political correctness and embrace truth.” In fact, said a teacher in the author’s district, it was a “despicable, racist, and xenophobic” screed. “I was disgusted by it. I’ve never seen anything before that was so obviously targeted propaganda to children,” Chad Withers told Motherboard. The title refers to Trump supporters who call themselves “centipedes” on the subReddit /r/TheDonald.
Wendy’s stumbled into alt-right fandom when its its official Twitter account accidentally tweeted the Pepe the Frog meme with red hair and pigtails resembling the company’s own logo. Anglin of the Daily Stormer jumped on the opportunity. “Wendy’s was always my personal favorite burger joint, but I never would have declared it the official burger of the Neo-Nazi Alt-Right movement — until now,” he wrote. ”Everyone knows that Pepe is a Nazi frog.”
New Balance intended to promote its stance on trade policies by backing Trump’s ideas, but ended up attracting the support of neo-Nazis.
“The Obama administration turned a deaf ear to us and frankly, with President-elect Trump, we feel things are going to move in the right direction,” Matthew LeBretton, the vice president of public affairs for New Balance, the only major shoe company to manufacture its sneakers in the US, told The Wall Street Journal shortly after last year’s election.
That again gave Anglin an opening to declare New Balance sneakers as the “Official Shoes of White People” on the Daily Stormer. New Balance responded:
For the the “Western chauvinist,” there are black Fred Perry polo shirts. The alt-right Proud Boys, a noxious “pro-Western fraternal organization” founded by the right-winger and former Vice Media founder Gavin McInnes, has adopted the shirt along with other far-right groups. The Proud Boys espouse an “anti-political correctness, anti-racial guilt” agenda in “an age of globalism and multiculturalism,” according to the group’s Facebook page,
At the Charlottesville rally, the Proud Boys appeared in black Fred Perry polo shirts trimmed with yellow stripes. The Southern Poverty Law Center lists the Fred Perry as the “brand of polo shirt favored by skinheads.”
@POYBSeattle / Twitter
The brand has disavowed any association and pointed out that its namesake was the son of a socialist British parliamentarian who partnered with a Jewish businessman from Eastern Europe. “No, we don’t support the ideals or the group that you speak of,” CEO John Flynn told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in a statement. “It is counter to our beliefs and the people we work with.”
The brand traces it origins to a British tennis player who won three consecutive Wimbledon Championships between 1934 to 1936. Fred Perry shot to fame in Britain as the first tennis player to win a career grand slam at age 26.
But his polo shirts and Dr. Martens’ boots (with either red or white laces) become the underground sartorial choices of the British skinhead movement, “a subversive dig at English elitism,” The Outline reports.
Detroit’s hometown hockey team had to face off against white supremacists this summer when the groups modified the Red Wings’ logo into a banner of white nationalism. Although the exact connection is unclear, one hockey fan website linked it to a group that calls itself the “Detroit Right Wings.” Black-helmeted men pinned the modified logo to their collars or emblazoned on home-made shields.
The Detroit Red Wings denounced it. “[We] vehemently disagree with and are not associated in any way with the event taking place today in Charlottesville, Va.,” the team said in a statement. “The Red Wings believe that hockey is for everyone, and we celebrate the great diversity of our fan base and our nation. We are exploring every possible legal action as it pertains to the misuse of our logo in this disturbing demonstration.”
The NHL also stated the organization is “obviously outraged by the irresponsible and improper use of our intellectual property” at the rally and would take “immediate” steps to reclaim the logo and “vigorously pursue other remedies.”