An Urgent Open Letter to the Worldwide Chairman & Chief Executive Officer of J. Walter Thompson Company

by Dr. David Mandler

Rendorsegssept2Dear Chairman Martinez,

In the last few weeks, thousands of migrants and refugees, predominantly from civil war-torn Syria, have made their way though Greece, Serbia, Hungary and Austria with one purpose: to settle in Germany. While each European country has taken its own approach to the emerging humanitarian crisis, Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, acted quickly to turn public opinion totally against the refugees who chose to travel through Hungary towards Germany. Now, it appears that your reputable advertising firm, the largest U.S. advertising agency with a long and illustrious past, is poised to become an accessory to Hungary’s anti-immigration campaign abroad. The purpose of this letter is to make it clear to you that acting as Orbán Viktor’s voice in foreign countries would be very controversial and would, thus, damage your brand name.

From the beginning of 2015, the ruling Fidesz Party, firmly under the direction of Viktor Orbán, began what some would consider an incitement against immigrants in a way that gave permission to the proverbial average citizen in the street to manifest freely his or her baser human instincts about foreigners.

Mr. Orbán’s first formal move in this area was to launch his so-called National Consultation initiative in June of 2015. The first round included the mailing out to the entire Hungarian population a staunchly anti-immigrant letter by Orbán in which he pejoratively calls refugees “economic migrants” along with a questionnaire of twelve manipulative questions. Incidentally, only ten percent of the recipients bothered to respond.

Shortly after this colossal waste of public resources came a print advertising campaign. The large blue-and-white billboards placed throughout the country contained such grandiose proclamations as follows: “If you come to Hungary, you must respect our laws!”, “If you come to Hungary, you cannot take away the jobs of Hungarians!” and “If you come to Hungary, you have to respect our culture!” Since the messages on these billboards were all in Hungarian, it is clear that this whole campaign was intended for domestic consumption.

The campaign elicited mixed reactions. It aided in strengthening the more xenophobic elements in Hungarian society even as hilarious spoofs of these billboards went viral on Facebook. Any sense of hilarity evaporated, though, with the announcement that Hungary would build a barbed wire fence along its border with Serbia. Since then, the suspiciously overpriced and surprisingly flimsy barbed wire fence has been completed, and, just as quickly, breached.

Using the migrant crisis as a pretext, Fidesz legislators proposed a string of new laws effective September 15th that will result in the curtailment of individual rights by empowering the military to search the homes of individuals suspected of harboring illegal immigrants without a warrant, stopping cars on public roads, and the ability to deploy tear gas, rubber bullets, arrest nets, and even fire arms with deadly force if necessary against refugees. At the same time, the Hungarian government has decided to spread its anti-immigrant campaign in Serbia, Macedonia and Greece. It is at this point that your reputable advertising firm enters the picture. A few days ago, it became clear that J. Walter Thompson’s Hungarian affiliate was selected for this purpose, shocking many in the advertising world.

Dr. Martinez! While it is not in your power to solve the refugee crisis by asking each EU country to take in its fair share of refugees as well as pressuring affluent Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia or Qatar to step up to the plate or orchestrating a satisfactory solution to the Syrian conflict, it is in your power to prevent the deterioration of your brand name’s reputation that will inevitable result from proceeding with this contract. Major news outlets such as the BBC and NPR have already begun to devote significant space to this issue of Hungary’s treatment of war refugees and migrants and will continue to do so with increased attention. In the next few days, the focal point of news, Keleti Rail Station, will be emptied of migrants and refugees. They will reportedly be sent to the city of Debrecen and housed in refugee camps with no end in sight. Judging by the leading questions of the questionnaire, refugees will be responsible for their own expenses and may even be sent to work in Hungary’s workfare system.

Clearly, no reputable international advertising firm would want to become an accessory to spreading Hungary’s dual message of coded Islamophobia and its policy of turning away all war refugees from Syria or elsewhere. Signing a contract with a country that is moving away from a system of checks-and-balances towards what Viktor Orbán has called “illiberal democracy” may result in more costs than benefits for your company. Considered from a moral point of view, anyone with a developed sense of empathy, especially people who consider themselves “global citizens” can only find this one-size-fits all rejection of all immigration objectionable. According to some Hungarian news outlets, even some of JWT’s Hungarian employees have found their position morally untenable and are, thus, considering resignation. The short and arguably cynical statement JWT Budapest’s Creative Director, Tamás Faragó, made in a Facebook reaction that was later republished with his permission may only help to push out some of JWT’s morally-inclined creative staff. Faragó stated that “the campaign would be worth it if it prevented even one child from stabbing him or herself on top of the barbed wire fence by knowing ahead of time what awaited him or her” (my translation). Were JWT’s Hungarian affiliate to proceed with this assignment, you would have to look forward to designing a PR campaign in defense of your assent in participating in the PR campaign ordered by Hungary’s opportunistically nationalist government against refugees.

In light of all of the above, I ask you to reconsider and, ultimately, reject this deal.


David Mandler, Ph.D.
P.S. The photo on top was taken on September 2nd near Keleti Railway Station and is courtesy of Petra Parker.

This open letter was republished in The Budapest Times on September 11, 2015.