As the images streamed out of Charlottesville, Virginia, this month showing white nationalists protesting the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, many could not help noticing the product illuminating the faces twisted into sneers of hate: Tiki torches.
Those innocuous bamboo beacons, produced by Tiki Brand, a 60-year-old company, and known primarily for their presence at family barbecues, poolside cabanas, lush resort grounds and Pacific-island themed restaurants, were now lighting the way for racists.
Tiki, which is owned by the Wisconsin-based Lamplight Farms, denounced the white nationalists in a Facebook post on Aug. 12. “We do not support their message or the use of our products in this way,” it said. “Our products are designed to enhance backyard gatherings and to help family and friends connect with each other at home in their yard.”
Mark Werner, vice president of marketing at Lamplight Farms, issued an addendum to the statement that read: “The feedback that we have received from the public regarding our earlier statement has been very positive. We will continue to reinforce that Tiki Brand products are to be enjoyed by friends and family outdoors in a loving environment.”
A spokeswoman for the company declined to comment further.
Still, marketing specialists and risk management consultants predicted that it would be difficult for Tiki to move past the perception that it had been embraced by racist organizations.
Andrew D. Gilman, who has consulted with companies like Johnson & Johnson, General Motors and Pepsi during crises, described Tiki as essentially “minding its own business” when it found itself caught up in the Charlottesville demonstrations.
“You hope that people are rational enough not to blame the innocent with the association that others are taking for it,” Gilman said. “But you cannot sit back passively and let this happen.”
He added, “When you have these things happen, it just hits you in the tummy and in the heart. You say, ‘We weren’t doing anything wrong.’ ”
This is not the first time that white nationalists and other members of the so-called alt-right have chosen particular products to co-opt or endorse. For years, the British clothing line Fred Perry has been dogged by its affiliation with skinheads, who seemed to favor its polo shirts as a sort of uniform, along with Dr. Martens, the makers of steel-toed boots. Fred Perry has denounced racist groups.
When an advertising campaign by the skin care brand Nivea this spring used the tagline “White is purity” to promote its line of streak-proof deodorants, it became widely circulated on social media accounts for white supremacists, prompting the company to pull the ad.
Even the Detroit Red Wings of the NHL issued a statement after an adaptation of its team logo appeared on posters in the Charlottesville rally, reportedly wielded by members of a Michigan white nationalist group calling itself the Detroit Right Wings.
“The Detroit Red Wings vehemently disagree with and are not associated in any way with the event taking place today in Charlottesville, Virginia,” the team said in a statement. “We are exploring every possible legal action as it pertains to the misuse of our logo in this disturbing demonstration.”
The Tiki torches were probably just a matter of convenience, said Joan Donovan, lead researcher in media manipulation at the research institute Data & Society, who studies hate groups and white supremacists. Torches have long been associated with the Ku Klux Klan, but those used in the past were far more likely to be homemade.
In many cases, though, these extremists and other members of the far-right will latch onto brands that are already stirring controversy as a way to ride the wave of publicity. Late last year, the hate website Daily Stormer referred to New Balance as the “official shoes of white people” after a company vice president made a flattering comment about then-candidate Donald Trump. The company issued forceful statements distancing itself from white supremacists.
Donovan said that the best way to counter any perception of being embraced by extremist groups is for brands to avoid even mentioning the people or groups that are trying to use their products.
“If you acknowledge and promote their existence and validate their actions in a way that even says ‘We disavow you,’ then it doesn’t give room to talk about the things you do support or find to be positive ways forward,” she said.
However, Scott Farrell, a specialist in crisis management and the president of Golin Corporate Communications, said that the use of the Tiki torches by racist groups in Charlottesville was so egregious and antithetical to the product’s good-natured image that “a swift and decisive response is the only way to go.”
“I think they did absolutely the right thing,” Farrell said. “Their messaging came out fast on Saturday, it had the right tone and tenor. It’s a page of the playbook that other people should be looking at right now.”
That playbook is rapidly being rewritten, forcing chief marketing officers to remain abnormally vigilant about how their products are being perceived and adopted in the marketplace.
“Historically, risk management centered on two questions: what’s possible and what’s probable,” Farrell said. “Today, to answer what’s possible, marketers have to push themselves to the extreme margins of reality.”