A Slovakian sportswear firm called Nebbia has promised to refund customers offended by its advert featuring a Black Norwegian bodybuilder – on condition that they send their requests to an email address that reads “I am racist” in Slovak.
In a series of blog posts, Nebbia CEO Martin Pecko threw himself into the uproar sparked by photographs posted on Nebbia Žilina’s Facebook page on 3 February that featured a Black male athlete alongside a White female model.
Comments on the photo quickly turned into a heated racial debate on immigration and multiculturalism, with some of the most disturbing comments describing the Black athlete as “a monkey in clothes” and “a murderer.” One commenter promised to boycott the company, while another warned that the ad campaign would only “discourage” potential buyers, as majority-White Slovaks wouldn’t relate to it.
Responding to the barrage of online abuse directed at the Black athlete, Pecko wrote that the man taking all the heat was Norwegian bodybuilder Dennis Johansen, explaining that he had been the brand’s ambassador for over a year and was picked for the promo shoot because of his “fantastic figure and sporting achievements.”
“The person in our picture is our good friend Dennis. He’s European, just like you. [He] has a university degree, a figure that you’ll never have, and a beautiful wife at home (who is white and blond),” Pecko wrote in an entry from 7 February on the company’s blog.
The CEO went on to denounce racial prejudice in strong terms, defending his company’s position as a global brand represented in over 40 countries. He also said the company would be “happy” if one “racist” commenter stopped wearing Nebbia’s clothing as promised, “so we won’t have to feel ashamed because of him.”
As the first blog post only seemed to add fuel to the fire, Pecko then vowed to make good on his promise to refund disgruntled customers in full. However, the offer came with a catch: to receive compensation, outraged buyers would have to send their requests to firstname.lastname@example.org – a newly-set up email address that means “I am a racist” in Slovak.
While Pecko acknowledged that the decision would likely result in economic losses, he expressed no regrets, writing “maybe we were crazy, but we stand by our word!”
As the controversy began making headlines in the local media, Pecko tried to avoid getting caught up in a debate on immigration, saying that his post should not be read as a political statement.
Intercultural tensions are running high in Slovakia, which has been traversed by thousands of migrants from North Africa and the Middle East taking the so-called Balkan route to Western Europe in hopes of being granted asylum. Slovakia has been a strong critic of an EU Commission scheme to redistribute the refugees across Europe.