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Ken Magill

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Best. Campaign. Ever. ... Killed

3/29/11

By Ken Magill

The Smithsonian certainly had good reason to put an end to a fake-but-very-cool poster campaign that made unauthorized use of its logo.

However, the Smithsonian didn’t give the good reason for having the campaign killed. It gave the politically correct one.

Dubbed Historically Hardcore, the three-poster campaign was done as a student art project by Jenny Burrows and Matt Kappler aimed at getting youngsters interested in history by comparing current cultural icons to historical bad asses.

“50 Cent got shot and still whines about it on stage. Teddy Roosevelt got shot mid-speech and didn’t leave the stage until he finished,” said one of the fake ads.

“Ozzy Osbourne’s dirty language rubbed off on his kids. Andrew Jackson was so vulgar his parrot was ejected from his funeral for swearing,” said another.

“Bret Michaels got with every chick on the Love Bus. Genghis Kahn got with so many chicks, there’s a .5 % chance you’re related to him,” said the third.

Early last week, the work was posted on Reddit.com and it began to go viral.

The work was also apparently for sale as prints on DeviantArt.

As the campaign began to getting more attention, Burrows called the Smithsonian to let them know what had happened and find out if they were okay with the situation.

“This morning I started getting phone calls from different news venues in Washington, DC.,” she wrote on her blog on March 21. “It was after the first call that I decided it was probably time to get in touch with someone from Smithsonian, just to cover my ass.”

Turns out the Smithsonian was very not okay with the situation and demanded Burrows take the museum’s logo off the work, citing trademark issues.

Burrows immediately complied. She also said she harbors no ill will toward the Smithsonian.

“Honestly, I don't blame them,” wrote Burrows on her blog. “If someone put something out there with my name on it, I wouldn't be too happy about it either, no matter how awesome it was.”

It certainly was an awesome campaign. And the Smithsonian had every right to call for its removal. But why? Most marketers go their entire careers without getting this kind of viral action.

Here’s what a rep had to say:

“It’s great when young people get excited about the Smithsonian. However, once these images were circulated on the internet, the fact that it was a student project and not an official Smithsonian ad was lost,” wrote Linda St. Thomas, press officer, Smithsonian, in an email to The Magill Report.

“I think I can say in general that we would not use Genghis Kahn in a Smithsonian advertising campaign and that, for the time the student ads were on the internet, we received several complaints from people who found them totally inappropriate and offensive,” St. Thomas continued.

I was a little rusty on the history of the Mongol empire, so I was puzzled at first why the Khan ad would be singled out as offensive.

A quick Google search revealed a 2003 article in National Geographic News reporting that nearly 8 percent of the men living in the region of the former Mongol empire carry identical y-chromosomes, according to a study. That translates to 0.5 percent of the male population in the world, or roughly 16 million descendants living today, the study determined.

“To have such a startling impact on a population required a special set of circumstances, all of which are met by Genghis Khan and his male relatives,” said the study’s authors.

Khan’s warriors regularly slaughtered vanquished enemies and took the women. Kahn always had first pick of the women. He conceived a bunch of kids and his kids conceived a bunch of kids who no doubt conceived a bunch of kids of their own, thereby populating the empire with a lot of Khan DNA while wiping out the DNA of others.

“No means no” wasn’t a Khan core value.

Okay, so maybe the lighthearted treatment of Khan as a ladies’ man in the campaign was inappropriate for an institution like the Smithsonian. Maybe Khan’s inappropriate, period.

Then again, maybe Khan is okay as long as he’s whitewashed.

Just for the heck of it, I did a search on “Genghis Khan” and “Smithsonian” on Google and found a 2002 press release announcing the opening of “Modern Mongolia: Reclaiming Genghis Khan” at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum.

“Using the traditional home of Mongolian nomads as backdrop, the exhibition invites visitors to experience 20th-century Mongolian life and discover Genghis Khan’s lasting legacy to his people,” the release said.

And what would that legacy be? Hordes of progeny? [Of course, pun intended]

Nope. His legacy to Mongolia is democracy. Seriously. That’s what the Smithsonian claimed.

“In 1206, nine years before the signing of the Magna Carta in England, Genghis Khan brought Mongolians the gifts of independence, nationhood and the basic principles from which they would one day build a modern democratic state,” said Paula Sabloff, senior research scientist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum and curator of the exhibition, in the release. “Today, Mongolians identify Genghis Khan with their contemporary democratic principles.”

So apparently, the Smithsonian has no trouble promoting Genghis Khan as long as he’s portrayed in some politically correct, candy-assed exhibit as a benevolent layer of the foundations of democracy—a claim that is pure nonsense, by the way.

Here’s the real reason the Smithsonian was right to get the ads killed. The three living icons in the ads are portrayed as wussies by historical standards and their likenesses were used without authorization. Those ads would be serous lawsuit material if the Smithsonian benefitted from them in any way.

So the Smithsonian reacted appropriately, just for the wrong reasons.

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