It’s Friday 4th September 2020. I’m Robey Jenkins and here is the news.
Hardly two weeks can go by, it seems, without some new controversy in our industry.
AK-Interactive has come under fire following the social media release of an advert for a new product, Condemnation: When Modeling Becomes Art and Art is a Social Denounce. No, that’s really what it’s called.
AK’s Diorama series of books have been highly acclaimed and attracted a lot of attention to the Spanish hobby supplier from the serious end of military model makers, and - consequently - from historical and fantasy tabletop wargamers.
This new release has sought to address some challenging issues, by providing hints and tips to advise hobbyists on how to model decaying bodies, blood-stained sand, mass graves, drug abuse and Nazi gas chambers.
But the release sought to catch people’s attention with a flashy video ad, using historical photographs from atrocity sites paired with what is described as “heavy metal” music.
I’m putting the words heavy metal in air quotes, by the way, because I’ve not heard the music, not because I don’t know what heavy metal sounds like!
Anyway, there was an immediate and powerful reaction from their audience to this advert which saw the ad deleted from their FB site.
By the end of the day, AK had published an apology.
There’s a fair bit to unpack from this news so let’s move swiftly to the Discussion.
Let’s tackle the easy bit first: the advert.
It goes like this: AK put out an advert. Their audience complained strongly. AK removed the advert. By and large, the matter ends there, but there are a couple of additional points to make.
First, I’ve said “their audience” as if their Facebook followers were of one mind. But we should be clear that, although a *lot* of people did complain in explicit terms, not everyone did. We’ll come back to this later.
Second, AK’s subsequent apology* was specifically for the advert and not for the product itself, which remains for sale. I’m not going to read the whole apology, because it’s looong. But I’m going to read a few bits that I think are telling.
“At AK Interactive our intention has always been to push the boundaries of our hobby.
Yesterday we posted some content online to advertise our new book Condemnation that offended many and for that we sincerely apologise. It was not our intention to offend and we deeply regret that it had this effect.”
If we overlook the fact that this is a re-phrased version of “I’m sorry that you were offended” - which, by the way, we shouldn’t - it does at least say that AK didn’t mean for their advert to be offensive. I’m prepared to take that on trust. But…
They went on to say “Our aim in posting this content” - by which they mean the advert and its use of images of actual, real victims of atrocities - “was to generate the feelings of rage and indignation that such human tragedies generate when they first occur.”
So AK didn’t want to offend anyone, but they did want them to be enraged and indignant. Now, I’m not sure what definition of “being offended” AK is working with, here, but if I feel enraged and indignant, I feel justified in saying that whatever made me so was offensive. That’s pretty much the definition of being offensive.
They up the ante by going on to say “We decided upon an advertising campaign that would recreate the same feelings of disgust, horror and rejection as news of the events themselves would do.”
So not just rage and indignation, but disgust, horror and rejection! But heaven forbid that we should also be offended!
Now, let me wind down the rhetoric a bit, here. Let’s overlook the fact that AK-Interactive, whose historical approach to translation has been that Google Translate is probably fine, has managed to release an apology in perfectly formed and nuanced English that still manages to put its foot so deep in its mouth that it can taste ankle. Let’s just accept that they dun f’ed up. They removed the ad. They apologized. For the sake of argument, we’ll accept that and move on…
...to look at the book itself.
Because most of the apology is less about the ad than it is about the book that they are selling, which promotes the use of the products that they sell.
AK-Interactive wanted to push the boundaries of their hobby by promoting examples of atrocities committed in and around recent historical warfare, including drug abuse, mass murder, genocide and environmental catastrophe. If we just take their words at face value, they are seeking to consciousness-raise about these atrocities by producing a guidebook to how to make miniature replicas of atrocities, illustrated with historical images and examples made by expert hobbyists. It’s right there in the badly-translated subtitle of the book: When modeling becomes art and art is a social denounce. The book is called “Condemnation”. Their aspiration is that the book is a work of art that promotes works of art that highlight and condemn acts of abuse and violence.
You may question the taste of such a project. You may well wonder who would feel it was a good thing to want to own. But do I, you, or anyone have the right to decide that art can’t be allowed to exist?
The thing about art, see, is that the artist bares their emotional response to the world and exposes that to criticism. And the thing about art is that the artist may expose things about themselves that they didn’t intend or didn’t want. But the artistic process is unforgiving in that respect and critics - those who analyze and deconstruct the work of artists - famously give no hoots for how the artist feels about their criticism. Indeed, the criticism is part of the artistic process. So, AK-Interative, if you fancy yourselves as artists, let’s indulge ourselves in a bit of artistic criticism and see how it looks at the end.
Let’s look, first, at how you have promoted this art. The tasteless ad, you’ve already admitted, was a mistake. But it was a telling one. And it was preceded by a still ad that asked - Gladiators style, in a trashy font, “Are You Ready?” And by another ad that said, of Jews and other Nazi victims of the Holocaust, “they were infectious rats who were putting in danger the German utopia and had to be treated as rats. How do we deal with rats? Using poison, of course.”
Let me read that again.
“How do we deal with rats?”
“How do we deal with rats?”
I don’t know if AK-Interactive is familiar with the concept of a dog whistle, where alt-right extremists use carefully couched language to call out to their fellow extremists in ways that non-insiders might not immediately notice. But if that was an unintentional use of the first person plural present tense then it was the most severely unfortunate use of an unintentional dog whistle I’ve ever seen.
But we’re not finished there.
Let’s look at the book’s front cover. What might you expect on the cover of an art book dealing sensitively with a traumatic subject that’s going to fill its page? Perhaps some oblique references to the suffering? Maybe use some details from the art models contained within that hint at the subject matter without being too in-your-face with the gruesome stuff?
Or, how about a ripped open surgical barrier, and peering through it a classic blond haired, blue-eyed Aryan face, in a surgical mask, spattered with blood?
Maybe that last one wasn’t what you expected. Maybe it sounds more like the cover of a straight-to-DVD slasher horror flick. But that, inexplicably, is what AK-Interactive went for.
I know, right?
So when AK-Interactive comes back with the whole “we’re trying to raise awareness and use military modeling to make an artistic statement about the horrors of warfare” schtick, all I can say is “well, stop sounding like you’re having so much fun doing it, then!”
Look, we know that our hobby does have some pretty right-wing folk in it. And when you start to leave wargaming and move to military modeling, the number of slightly weird, gun-obsessed camouflage fetishists definitely starts to increase. It’s not everyone. Absolutely not. But if you’ve ever explored into that world, I’m certain you will have noticed. There are enough of them that would definitely notice. And I have no personal experience of the Spanish military modeling scene but I do have it on fairly good authority that the prevalence of people who think that General Franco’s dictatorship was the good old days is definitely above average and possibly pushing towards a majority.
Now, I’m not saying that AK-Interactive have stooped so low as to deliberately pitch genocide and atrocity porn at the gun-humping nutjobs of our hobby. But I am saying that I see a duck-shaped object and I’ve heard it quack.
But, presentation aside, I want to ask whether this book - even sensitively and compassionately presented (which it isn’t) would have been a good idea. Is there any version of this book that would be an acceptable thing to exist?
First, we’d have to strip away some of the commercial elements. Using this subject to promote sales of AK-Interative’s own range of weathering products and paints is crass and deeply insensitive. They should have assumed that customers already know where to get these things. It’s like standing up at a funeral and asking why no one is talking about you.
Second, we’d have to do away with the whole idea of profit, by ensuring that the whole proceeds from sales were going towards something like UNESCO or the UNHCR or the Landmines Trust.
But even then, we’d be left with a book full of photographs of beautifully, masterfully rendered miniature scenes of gut-wrenching tragedy.
As a piece of art, presented as a one-off to sit on a pedestal in a museum or gallery, this might be poignant. It could speak about memory and the trivialisation of the past, and how the human experience of atrocity evolves with time. Visitors could leaf through the pages and contemplate the dichotomy of marvelling at the intricacy and skill involved in the modeling whilst recoiling from the reality of what was being portrayed.
That would certainly be art.
And if the artist had made the scenes themselves, immersing themselves in the subject matter to really experience the banality of anguish in the correct positioning of a dead child’s femur; and then, after the photography was complete, utterly destroyed the models, experiencing catharsis through the unwitnessed and unrecorded destruction of their patient effort.
That would be powerful art.
But that’s not what AK-Interactive has done.
They’ve mass-produced a coffee table book and put it up for sale on their website for €40. They commissioned those models. And those models still sit on someone’s display shelf, somewhere. They have commoditized atrocity.
When I first heard about this story, I was initially annoyed at the crassness of the advert. But I wasn’t moved to condemn AK-Interative. They pulled the ad. They apologized. It was clumsily done, but they’re a small business and sometimes small businesses shouldn’t be held to the same moral standards as big businesses. When you’re only a few people and the boss is inexperienced, mistakes happen. Mis-steps are easy. I’ve made a few.
I was put in mind of the hoo-ha that arose over GreenStuffWorld’s poor handling of the ColourShift trademark that led to lots of people calling for a boycott. I thought this was similar.
But then I looked closer.
This is not similar.
AK-Interactive has created something that is monstrous. The closest equivalent I can think of was when someone entered a diorama into a Golden Demon competition that showed a group of Imperial Guardsmen preparing to sexually assault a captive Eldar. I wasn’t surprised that someone would think of it. I wasn’t shocked that someone would build it. But I was horrified that someone could think of it, create it and put so much diligent care and attention and talent into it. If it had been bad, I would’ve still hated it, but I would’ve dismissed the executor as a worthless deviant and moved on with my life. But it was good. By which I mean that the conversion work was flawless. The painting was top notch. It was, without question, a Golden Demon level hobby performance. And it was awful.
I felt like it violated the hobby in a way that actually tainted my experience of it in a permanent way.
And what AK-Interative has done is worse, because they took that and commoditized it and dragged the contributing artists into it with them. And then had the gall to wrap itself in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights to cover its naked commercialism.
And now, to my immense disappointment, I have to come back to something I raised earlier.
Despite everything that is wrong with this product and how much it really deserves to see AK-Interactive as a company just end, there is no shortage of people out there pointing at the reaction to this book and declaring it an example of “cancel culture”.
Now, smarter and funnier people than me, with much larger audiences, have already spoken at length about why cancel culture isn’t actually a thing. If you have ever used the expression without irony, please go and search YouTube for some examples. I mentioned a couple of episodes ago that companies ought to welcome customer feedback. It’s important, even if it’s negative. But if you piss off your customers, they won’t buy your products. And if you piss off your customers enough, they will tell other people not to buy your products, too.
That’s not cancel culture. It’s business.
Ages ago, when I was just starting Precinct Omega, I wrote a blog post about strategies for wargames clubs to increase diversity and reduce incidents of abuse - especially against female members. I received some customer feedback from that, which - aside from the guy who hoped I would die from cancer (I haven’t yet, by the way) - included one long rant from someone who swore he’d never buy anything from me.
Now, looking back, I’m still 100% on board with the principles behind those proposals but I might think differently about how they could be implemented. All the same, I actually take some comfort from the knowledge that at least one misogynistic a******e hasn’t bought any products from me.
Precinct Omega isn’t shy about sharing the fact that the company is founded on certain socially liberal values. But there are two reasons for that. The first is because those values are my values and I am Precinct Omega - at least until I reach the point that I can afford an employee or two. But the second reason is a more commercial one. I sincerely believe that the vast majority of people in our hobby, whether they are noisy about it or not, are also socially liberal, compassionate, kind people who don’t care what colour, gender or sexuality the person over the table is, just as long as they will please fail this next armour save. I am prepared to gamble the future of my business on the fact that mean-spirited edgelords who take pleasure in casually inflicting misery on other human beings are, in fact, a tiny minority of actual, paying customers and I am actively thrilled to take a public position that means they are less likely to be playing my games.
So I find the prospect alarming that there might be companies within our industry willing to bet in the opposite direction. My sincere hope is that, somehow, improbable as it may seem given the circumstances, AK-Interactive has simply made a monumental screw-up. Let’s be honest, it wouldn’t be the first time that a commercially-minded organization has tried to “do art” and got it catastrophically wrong. What does a small business do in these circumstances?
There are three options.
The first is to walk it back and pray for forgiveness: find some way of repairing the burnt bridges with your customers and get back on that fallen horse.
The second is to double down. This has been my approach. You think Precinct Omega is a libtard snowflake company? You’re darn right it is. I have values, and I work to those values. But I don’t think we’ll see this from AK-Interactive. I think even my most right-wing friends and family would agree that a company with an international market actively espousing genocide is probably not a good marketing strategy.
The only other option is to tough it out, refuse to acknowledge the issue and press on regardless. Companies above a certain size, with a broad customer base, can often get away with this. They’ll take a hit but ultimately not enough of one to put the company in any trouble. I’ve mentioned Nestle before and the controversy over their promotion of formula milk to emerging economies. They chose to tough it out. But that was in a pre-Internet, pre-social media world.
Companies can still get away with stuff, if they’re big enough.
Precinct Omega isn’t big enough, by far! If I made a screw-up on this scale, my only recourse would be option one. But this also serves to explain this podcast. For my company, this weekly discussion serves two purposes. First, it makes it clear to my potential customers what my position - and, therefore, the position of Precinct Omega - actually is. But more importantly, it serves to keep me honest. It’s a chance to reflect on my performance over the last week, the decisions I’ve made and the actions I’ve taken and to measure them against the standards I’ve publicly promoted.
So far, I’ve had nothing but positive feedback. But I feel certain that, if I screw up, I can rely on my small audience here to let me know. And, believe me, I will be grateful for that.
Thank you for listening. I’ll speak to you against next week.
*Post-release note: this apology has also been removed and been replaced with a shorter, less ambiguous apology. However, it remains an apology for the advertising campaign, not for the book itself, which continues to be offered for sale.