In a rapid demonstration of the power of social media and viral content, hundreds of people purchased a tea kettle from JC Penny that had the likeness of Nazi Führer Adolf Hitler, causing it to sell out within hours after begin posted on the internet.
The tea kettle was exposed to the internet and quickly went viral, going from social media to news websites as human interest in the unusual kitchen accessory grew, rapidly leading to the internet colliding with real life as the tea kettle sold out. This rather quixotic episode demonstrates the speed at which an internet meme can spread quickly through society.
The initial picture was posted to the social media website Reddit over Memorial Day weekend with a very simple description ("This Kettle looks like Hitler!") and a single picture of a billboard from Culver City, California.
The post quickly got many upvotes but then it did something quite extraordinary. It made that leap from social media curiosity to minor news story. The Daily Mirror, a British tabloid, ran with the story of the Hitler tea kettle and apparently had a folder of pictures of other things that look like Hitler that was ready and waiting to accompany that story.
The American news website Huffington Post also ran with the story. Huffpo tweeted their story, and then the most peculiar thing happened,
Normally you would want to ignore and downplay the fact that one of your products represents one of the most infamous dictators and mass murders in history, but JC Penny has been having a very bad time recently.
While the world gawked in amusement at this unusual case of pareidolia, the tendency to interpret vague stimulus as something known, the most dedicated of internet denizens were attempting to get a piece of internet history. The tea kettle began to sell like hotcakes and by Tuesday morning the product page for the Michael Graves Design Bells and Whistles Stainless Steel Tea Kettle, the real name of the now infamous tea kettle, greeted you with the following:
Hitler moves merchandise, apparently. Perhaps this is the answer to JC Penny's woes: a line of products themed around infamous dictators of the 20th century such as the Mussolini microwave, the Tojo egg timer, and the Stalin set of spoons.
Many other products have exploded due to the internet grabbing onto a meme and dragging it into the spotlight. Perhaps the most famous example is the film Snakes on a Plane, which saw an incredible internet buzz and a variety of parodies that were probably better then the actual movie. Advertisers of the movie quickly grabbed on to this community and heavily pushed the viral marketing angle, encouraging would-be fans to promote the movie online heavily rather then traditional marketing venture, betting on the viral nature of the memes it had produced.
While JC Penny probably does not relish the comparison of one its products to Hitler, it has not caused the retailer any backlash in any way. But all jokes aside, this whole incident only serves to illustrated the swiftness through which information flows through our interconnected world. In this age of digital culture, a billboard in California can grab the attention of readers in the United Kingdom and lead to a run on a simple tea kettle.