From Ukraine to Auschwitz, a single letter can damn or defy
Given that the Russian Defense Ministry’s Instagram account only started posting excellent Z-themed memes on March 2, a week after the assault began, it seems rather like the Kremlin is rushing to relaunch Z in a propaganda campaign as ill-prepared as his army. logistics.
So far, this reconnection has had some success on official state channels, and social media is littered with “normal” Russians who are “voluntarily” embracing the letter.
On March 6, Russian gymnast Ivan Kuliak made world headlines after performing a hand taped Z to collect his bronze medal on the parallel bar at a World Cup in Qatar. (Ukrainian Illia Kovtun won gold; Kuliak could now face a ban.)
A post shared by Oleg Verniaiev (@verniaiev13)
And what could be more natural than children with cancer forming a pro-war Z in the snow in front of their hospice?
The meme-to-merch ride was cynically ended when Russia Today started selling Z-themed T-shirts “to help Donbass refugees and heroes of the RT project ‘Children of War'” – assuming you have access to an unauthorized credit card.
No sooner had Z made headlines than Godwin’s Law was inevitably enacted and Russia’s pro-war symbol was dubbed “the next swastika.” However, a more apt comparison may be to several other unsuspecting Roman figures who have been pressed to the front lines.
Perhaps the most famous agitprop letter is the V for Victoire – Victoire in French and Vrijheid [freedom] in Flemish – which was first suggested by Belgian politician Victor de Laveleye in a 1941 radio broadcast:
“May the occupier, seeing this sign, always the same, repeated ad infinitum, understand that he is surrounded, surrounded by an immense crowd of citizens impatiently awaiting his first moment of weakness, watching for his first failure.
Almost immediately, the Vs sprang up across Europe – printed on posters, painted with chalk on walls, beamed from searchlights, broken from matches and propagated audibly via dot-dot-Morse code. dot-dash of the letter which, fortuitously, echoed the opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth. . Of course, it was Churchill’s penchant for the gestural V that gave the letter its authoritative imprimatur, and seemed to counter – in rock-paper-scissor fashion – the “Hitler Salute”, especially more than Winston liked to twirl his hand to signal a very different meaning.
More recently, two other letters have found lasting political power: the encircled anarchist A, which since the mid-1960s has been embraced by a number of rebel movements, from punk to anti-capitalism; and the Q of Q-Anon which, since 2017, has emerged as an all-purpose p-sign for a swirling cult of pro-Trump, anti-vax American paranoia.
While these agit-prop letter logos have come off the streets, so to speak, others have been more strategically designed. Gerald Holtom’s 1958 CND “peace sign” was ingeniously formed from the semaphore for N[uclear] and D[isarmament]; and the Extinction Rebellion logo, apparently designed in 2011 by British street artist ‘ESP’, powerfully combines the X of Extinction with an hourglass to illustrate the passage of time.
The intersection of professionally designed protest logos and popular graphics finds its darkest apotheosis in a message hidden in the iron Arbeit Macht Frei sign above the gates of Auschwitz I.
Inmates forced by the SS to weld this diabolical slogan (“Work sets you free”) deliberately reversed the letter B – an astonishing display of defiance now commemorated by the International Auschwitz Committee, which features “To B Remembered” memorials ” to those “who act in the spirit of the key concept of Auschwitz survivors: Never again.
Although these letter-shaped logos differ widely in meaning (and decency), what unites them is what has united all successful logos – as Jens Müller explores in his masterful new book on the history of corporate identities, “Logo Beginnings”.
The first registered logo in the United States, notes Müller, was registered in 1870 by Averill Paints. It featured an engraved eagle set against the Chicago skyline, perched on the rock of “chemistry” and holding in its beak a paintbrush and a box, from which three words appear: “Durable, Beautiful, Economical”. Five years later, the first European logo to be registered represented a completely different approach – it was the bold red triangle and stylized signature of British brewery Bass, which can still be seen today.
In many ways, the DNA of every logo ever designed exists within these two unwitting pioneers: artistic, figurative and metaphorical on the one hand, bold, abstract and clean on the other.
Indeed, the ability of a corporate identity to endure over decades often depends on its ability to evolve in the face of fashion (and technology) by adopting and adapting the attributes of these two archetypes. As Müller notes of Pathé’s 120-year-old French rooster herd, “hardly any other company can boast such a consistent and, at the same time, varied logo history.”
Inevitably, a large majority of the 6,000 logos that Müller painstakingly categorizes have disappeared from the market, overwhelmed by the uncompromising roll of capitalism. Thus, “Logo Beginnings” is, among other things, a graphic endorsement of the maxim that “history is written by the victors”.
One of those winners is surely Coca-Cola, whose logo remains a staple of the brand pantheon some 130 years after it was registered. Not only has the Coca-Cola logo evolved alongside other long-established brands, it has fended off competitors every step of the way. As early as 1923, notes Müller, the company published a 700-page compendium of court decisions against competitors who had tried, unsuccessfully, to rip it off.
Scrolling through the archives of “Logo Beginnings”, one can easily forget that – no matter how confidently brands sell themselves as sui generis – every corporate identity exists in a chaotic externality of not just competition, but events. .
Few know this better than Swiss food conglomerate Nestlé SA, which has been rocked by decades of scandals and boycotts covering companies ranging from baby milk to bottled water. According to Nestlé’s website, “Henri Nestlé was one of the first Swiss manufacturers to create a brand using a logo”, and the company proudly traces the evolution of this logo by balancing the artistic tradition from Averill with the bold simplicity of Basse:
Such corporate ego is fine – until the brand hits a bombing campaign. Recently, Nestlé’s initial reluctance to pull out of the Russian market altogether has not only drawn political criticism from President Zelenskiy…
“‘Good food. Good life.’ This is the slogan of Nestlé. Your company that refuses to leave Russia. Even now, when Russia threatens other European countries. Not only for us. When there is even nuclear blackmail from Russia .
… this provoked a graphic response far from anything Henri Nestlé could have imagined.
It’s a design cliche to say “a big logo can be drawn in the sand with a stick” – especially since “scribbled on the side of a tank” suddenly and depressingly seems more relevant. Yet Russia’s devastation of Ukraine proves, de novo, that rallying graphics don’t need to be complex or even thoughtful.
As Kremlin stooges take Zs out of social media safety, surprisingly brave Russian citizens risk being arrested and tortured by taking to the streets with signs containing nothing more than the asterisk motif “*** * ***” – which may (or may not) refer to Net voyne, No to war.
Indeed, as this protester from Nizhny Novgorod proved, one can make a statement dangerous enough to get snatched away by the police while waving a blank sheet of paper…no logo required.
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Ben Schott is the advertising and brand columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. He created the Schott’s Original Miscellany and Schott’s Almanac series, and writes for newspapers and magazines around the world.