A political ad that portrays a pensioner hobbling forward for a share of the national budget only to be overtaken by a crowd of burqa-clad women pushing baby carriages has been rejected by a Swedish TV channel on the grounds that it promotes religious hatred.
The campaign ad for the far-right Sweden Democrats (SD) party begins with a number signifying Sweden’s national budget rapidly decreases onscreen, while a female voice over notes that “all policies are about prioritizing.” As the number approaches a critical red, a klaxon sounds, and the voice continues: “Now you have a choice.” The lone pensioner and the burqa-clad women begin to race forward. As the crowd overtakes the elderly woman, the voice over tells voters that “On September 19, you can choose to cut immigration or cut pensions.” The elderly woman’s lone hand reaches for a red handle labeled “immigration”, the burqa-clad women’s hands reach for the handle labeled “pensions,” and the ad ends with a slogan promising to safeguard pension funding at the expense of immigration.
From a visual perspective, the sinister and slightly bizarre aspect of this ad is effective, tapping into fears about immigrants through the threatening facelessness of the crowd, which obscures the huge variety of immigrant groups in Sweden and turns them into a collective alien mass. Aside from the brief glimpse of the cashiers, the only really identifiable person in the ad is the pensioner. The single suggestion of individuality in the immigrants is a close up of a hand wearing a ring, which is an interesting detail which builds on ideas of immigrants taking advantage of Sweden’s welfare system, helping to stage the question of budget expenditure as a crime. Essentially, the scene represents a mugging of a little old lady, which the voter can prevent.
Interestingly, the baby carriages the women are pushing appear to be empty. The progeny of these faceless women clearly represent the threat of mass immigration in generations to come, yet they are as invisible as the women, they are a dark army of baby carriages. How do you make a baby look threatening, anyway?
There was a debate last year about whether or not SD would be allowed to air their campaign adverts on TV4. Ultimately, it was decided that it would be permitted. However, upon viewing this particular spot, TV4 refused to air the advert, seeing it as breaking the country’s hate-speech laws that prohibit material that promotes racial or religious hatred. CEO Jan Scherman defended this decision:
“those who watch the clip…very clearly see a group portrayed as intimidating and aggressive. The group is very easily identifiable, belonging to a religion, dressed in a certain way.”
Addressing the hate-speech charge, SD press secretary Erik Almqvist argued: “The conflict we see as a result of mass immigration is not related to the person’s origin, but rather a conflict of values,” while Per Hultmangard, a lawyer at the Swedish Media Publishers’ Association noted that: “They simply play on people’s fears. Legally, it is within the allowable framework.” The fact that the ad was banned has led to protestations over censorship that have extended to Denmark. The banning of the ad is relative since it has been widely publicized online, but it does raise questions—not only about freedom of expression, but about the effectiveness of the ban, with many reactions indicating that it has heightened resentment and perhaps even swayed some people in SD’s favor.
A pre-election remix of the ad that overlays it with a Hitler speech ends with the message that: “Germany has already had Nazis in parliament. Make sure Sweden doesn’t.” As predicted, however, SD won an unprecedented 20 seats in the elections last Sunday, their first entry to the national parliament. In that sense, this ad is only a sign of how increasing fears of immigration and worries about the future of the country have propelled the rise of the far right.
While calls for cutting down immigration are both understandable and common in today’s Sweden, this ad pushed its message home in a way which has heightened tensions on both sides. As in the Swiss minaret ban ads, the burqa-clad women are used as an icon of the insidious threat of Islam “taking over” through demographics.