Culture, Europe, Top Stories

Scandinavian Airlines: Get Woke, Cry Wolf

What is truly Scandinavian? Absolutely nothing. Everything is copied. 

This was the slogan contained in a bizarre ad campaign broadcast earlier this month by Scandinavian Airlines (SAS), the largest airline in Scandinavia and the flag carrier of Norway, Denmark and Sweden. The ad was posted on YouTube, but was quickly edited and reposted after being flooded with bad reviews.

The message, in short: Nothing is genuinely Scandinavian. Be it meatballs or paternity leave, everything comes from other countries. While the Dutch, Germans and Americans have all made innovations, ours is “nada, niente,” the ad emphasizes. Then follows the unobjectionable cliché message that Scandinavian culture has been enriched by travel and cross-cultural influences.

The edited ad. The original version is no longer available online. 

For the past two weeks, SAS has faced a wave of criticism, ranging from ordinary Twitter users and opinion writers to leading politicians. Social media has been full of comments from people who vow never to fly with the company again—their own flag-carrier, 29 percent of which is owned by the Danish and Swedish state.

For anyone having trouble understanding why the ad has caused offense, imagine someone—say, Donald Trump—making the same claim about any other nation. Imagine them asking what is truly Mexican, Jewish or Palestinian, and then contending, “Absolutely nothing. Everything is copied.” 

With 112,000-plus down-votes compared to 13,000-plus up-votes on YouTube as of this writing, this looks like a PR disaster. Get woke, go broke, as the saying goes. But it remains to be seen whether the campaign will have a lasting effect on the company’s brand.

However, this story isn’t just about a single episode of bad judgment at one company, as SAS’ bad-faith damage-control response arguably was worse than the original misfire: SAS got woke—then it cried wolf. 

The day after the ad was released, the airline wrote in a press statement that it was investigating a suspected “attack” on social media—a theory which was uncritically picked up by leading international outlets. “When analyzing the pattern and volume of reactions we have reason to suspect an online attack and that the campaign has been hijacked,” SAS wrote in its statement.

Some media immediately began speculating on possible Russian involvement, a theory which the company did nothing to deny. Reuters claimed that the ad was simply “debunking myths about Scandinavia,” yet had nevertheless become “victim of an online hate campaign, particularly from nationalist and right-wing groups.”

The advertising agency’s offices in Copenhagen were in fact subjected to a bomb threat, which seems to have been a hoax. But SAS has not presented any evidence of a cyber attack. And although the ad has been widely shared in forums such as 4chan, experts have rejected the idea that the company was victim of a coordinated attack, either particularly by “right-wing groups,” or by Russia. And a number of mainstream Scandinavian media outlets and commentators had been among the most vocal critics.

But by evoking existing fears of right-wing extremism, online hate campaigns, and real threats to national security, the company was able to deflect basic journalistic scrutiny.

This damage-control strategy is more likely to work outside Scandinavia than within, since it requires some familiarity with the region to understand the outlandish nature of the ad’s message. SAS’ mode of crisis management might only add to the offense, as the company now is portraying perfectly reasonable people in one of the world’s most tolerant and multi-cultural regions as irrational and hateful.

Damn Putin. Internet meme. 

While Reuters claims SAS was simply “debunking myths about Scandinavia,” the ad does no such thing. In fact, it gets a number of facts about the region wrong. For instance, the ad mentions parental leave, and features a Swedish dad with a baby carrier whispering “Thank you Switzerland.” Yet, Sweden was the first country in the world to introduce paid paternity leave, in 1974. Many Swedes take great pride in this fact, since paternity leave is seen as a symbol of Swedish gender equality.

Switzerland, which is much more conservative than progressive Sweden, did introduce maternity leave first, but it was the last country in western Europe to offer fathers paternity leave. It did so five months ago, 45 years after Sweden.

The ad also claims that Swedish meatballs may in fact be Turkish, which is actually an urban legend, long ago debunked. (The misunderstanding is most likely based on stories about an entirely different dish, namely the cabbage roll.) 

In other cases, the ad debunks things that no one really seems to believe. For instance, I’ve never met anyone who thinks that the bike is a Scandinavian invention. Copenhagen is known for its love of the bike, true—but Danes don’t claim to have created it. 

Here are some actual Scandinavian inventions not mentioned in the ad: the Celsius temperature scale, the pacemaker, the banknote, dynamite, Lego, Spotify, Skype, Carolus Linnaeus’ taxonomy, and Niels Bohr’s foundational contributions to quantum physics and our understanding of atomic structure. Scandinavia, in fact, has long been one of the most innovative regions in the world. The Nobel Prize—in memory of Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite—is Swedish.

Indeed, the Kurdish-Swedish economist Tino Sanandaji has pointed out that it can be helpful to take a look at the periodic table by country of discovery to get an idea of how the Scandinavians have fared in terms of scientific contributions.

But of course, who cares about quantum physics or the discovery of new elements when there’s the origin of the meatball to be debated? 

And now Scandinavia apparently has one more invention to claim, although it’s not one that should instill any of us with pride: a cynical new corporate strategy for deflecting criticism based on inflated or invented claims of online hate campaigns and Russian involvement—which, of course, will simply undermine public trust and public resolve in the face of real extremist campaigns and disinformation. 


Paulina Neuding is Quillette’s European editor. Follow her on Twitter @paulinaneuding. 


  1. What’s truly Scandinavian? Apparently squandering your cultural inheritance through self-deprecating self-flagellation.

    Interesting that it’s the countries that have been the most productive that are most keen to devalue themselves. I sense some Marxist stigmatization of success afoot.

  2. @pseudobabble @ClosedRange Escape-Hatching*
    “When someone who is proposing a view, creates for themselves an exception to or limitation of the point they are making, for the purpose of avoiding any loss of social status which might come with being associated with those who espouse similar but socially unnacceptable forms of the view”.

    “Or, perhaps, The Coward’s Disclaimer” .

    Author could not resist Escape hatching in that final paragraph.

    “which, of course, will simply undermine public trust and public resolve in the face of real extremist campaigns and disinformation”.

    Of course things are never bad in and of themselves. They are only bad because they might promote the “far right”.

  3. I heard it was hacked by 2 guys in MAGA hats

  4. In the self deprecation Olympics Canada competes hard. Our government has basically just ceded control of the country to the natives, can any Scandinavian country boast the same?

  5. The funny thing about this article is that that a lot of the culture of western Europe and the U.S. comes indirectly from Scandinavia, not the other way around. The Normans were an ethnic group that resulted from the arrival of Scandinavian explorers/raiders (Vikings) who settled along the north coast of France (Normandy) where they intermarried with the Franks. During the Middle Ages the Normans conquered a large portion of western Europe, including Britain. I guess that everyone at the PC advertising agency slept through history class. Otherwise that would have heard about William the Conqueror. It was Norman rulers who wrote the Magna Carta in 1215, which codified the Rule of Law and led to modern Democracy.

  6. It’s called Stockholm Syndrome for a reason.

  7. Great satire of the wooly progressive thinking, Morgan.

    The idea seem to be that we base our calendar on the CHristian chronology, but pretend we aren’t doing so.

  8. You’d get too many lefty senators that way. Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba each must be their own state, and Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes aren’t invited. BC can come if Vancouver is given over to Washington state or falls into the ocean.

  9. The poor live on the sidewalk, working people live in their cars or in bunk houses but all the washrooms are now rainbow and all civic events start with native land ownership ceremonies. So the plutocrats are happy and so are the woke. Working people, not so much.

  10. Oikophobia lives in Scandinavian countries? Here I though scandinavian countries were nirvana because they are always brought up by the socialists here in the USA as how to do everything right.

    It looks like SAS is yet another company to join the likes of Gillette in loathing their customers. Apparently acceptance by the gliteratti must be very important considering the cost is a significant loss in the bottom line.

  11. Our rotten BBC promotes vile ‘grime’ music far more than Shakespeare. I think Shakespeare is better.


    And when love speaks the voice of all the Gods,
    Makes heaven drowsy with the harmony.


    Your face ain’t too big for my boot.
    Kick up the yout.

  12. Progressives love to believe that their country is the only one without a culture. A British progressive will think Sweden has an authentic national culture, but Britain does not, and vice-versa.

    This is a side effect of relativism. Relativism starts out with the claim that all philosophies have equal status. They are neither true nor false. But this effectively asserts the truth of a single meta-philosophy. So the attempt to avoid asserting just one viewpoint and thus deny others, leads directly to the forceful assertion of one meta-viewpoint.

    Progressives equate their own national culture with this meta-view. Their own beliefs are meta, neutral and lack culture. The views of immigrants, by contrast, reflect an authentic culture.

    The great irony is that this outlook is very similar to the outlook of old-fashioned colonialists. They also privileged their own outlook as uniquely neutral and meta in nature. Relativist’s attempts to avoid colonial thought patterns lead them back to the starting point.

  13. Easy enough to prove beyond doubt: I suspect you might be a Trump sympathizer, therefore everything you think is not only wrong, but evil and heretical. Q.E.D. :innocent:

  14. Pardon me for wading in on a personal argument, but I’m sure that most people who voted for Trump, like me, were not thinking in terms of Christian values when they pulled the lever for him.

    Nor did I ever care about the Christian values of any other president I voted for. I certainly never voted against a candidate because they lacked (or had) demonstrable Christian values.

    Christian values are a nullity for me in the voting booth and, I think, most other people who vote. And I find it funny that progressives - a notoriously atheistic lot - keep bringing it up in conversation.

    Trump is “a severely immoral and amoral man”? Okay. And if I were to point out the immorality and amorality of left-wing politicians that progressives vote for - seemingly without much concern - is that whataboutery, or is it merely pointing out the hypocrisy of progressives who object to Trump on the grounds of morality?

    Christian leadership and example are things that I look for outside of the political arena. What I look for from a politician is someone who will do what I want and lower my taxes.

  15. I love the dry humour - I fear it’s going over other people’s heads.

    I was initially thinking of answering @The_Hang_Nail on the initial topic of SAS, but when I saw the tirade against trump brought in out of nowhere I thought what the hell, this is going nowhere.

    Btw, @The_Hang_Nail, I think you’re not aware of the fact that probably about 50% of us on Quillette here aren’t from the US (my rough educated guess), and Trump / Obama is neither here nor there for us. As the French would say, Je m’en fous! The world doesn’t revolve around the US after all.

Continue the discussion in Quillette Circle

186 more replies


Comments have moved to our forum