At first glance, it looks like an ordinary teapot. The Michael Graves Design Bells and Whistles Stainless Steel Teapot (which retails at JCPenney for $40) is just that: a functional teapot made for heating water. But when the JCPenney marketing team used its image as a billboard in Southern California, highway drivers got a bit, well, steamed. Why? The teapot, positioned at the right angle and seen from a distance, had an uncanny resemblance to a not-so-popular dictator.
Over Memorial Day Weekend, images of the newly released billboard surfaced on Twitter. When Tweets suggested that passersby couldn’t help but make the connection with JCPenney to Adolf Hitler, the fledgling company suddenly had another PR catastrophe on its hands.
There is a design principle called anthropomorphism, which suggests that when designers make a product that has human-like characteristics (even simple, abstract shapes), consumers find it cute, fun, and overall desirable. You’ll see this design principle in all kinds of products, from shampoo bottles to lawn chairs. There’s another design principle called figure-ground relationship, where negative space plays an important role in what we perceive, making the figure and the ground of the image seem to switch back and forth. Done well, it makes designs visually interesting and engaging. But if you’re not careful, the negative space can have negative, unforeseen consequences.
It appears that JCPenney executives failed to notice that both principles were at play here. From far distances, the negative space in the ground caused the teapot to visually “anthropomorph” into arguably the most hated man in modern society. Oops.
But, perhaps all isn’t lost for JCPenney. By the Tuesday after Memorial Day, of the 31 teapots that JCP sells, this Hitler version was the only one that was sold out online.