Racial blind spots can still blindside major corporations.
H&M revealed one the hard way as it faced criticism for an online advertisement featuring a young black boy in a sweatshirt emblazoned with the phrase, “coolest monkey in the jungle.”
Twitter users were quick to slam the tone-deaf advertisement:
Some were more nuanced in their appraisals:
That H&M hoodie in and of itself is not racist nor offensive. However putting it on and marketing it with a black child with historical and current context is just not a good look.— Zee (@AsToldByZee_) January 8, 2018
Music star and brand influencer The Weeknd tweeted he would sever ties with the company:
H&M apologized and conceded its mistake.
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In a statement, H&M said it agreed with those who were “upset about the image.”
“We are deeply sorry that the picture was taken, and we also regret the actual print,” the company said in a statement. “Therefore, we have not only removed the image from our channels, but also the garment from our product offering globally.”
As of Monday afternoon, the shirt, without the original model image, was still available for sale on its British site.
Some found the apology tepid. The Root questioned how the image made it to print in the first place.
It’s really not that hard to avoid this kind of marketing disaster.
The major fashion retailer H&M has still offered no explanation for how a photo of a black child wearing a “coolest monkey in the jungle” hoodie passed by anyone with a lick of common sense, racial sensitivity, or melanin and then made it onto its site.
Other Twitter users weren’t convinced that H&M was guilty only of ignorance; they pointed to other items in the clothing line that suggest racial bias.
but wait for it...there’s also the loaded message on the orange hoodie...the junior tour guide & jungle official survivor expert...the entire narrative is a fail for 2018. pic.twitter.com/8hpHQPxOgQ— paisley (@alwayspaisley) January 8, 2018
The Root offered some context.
H&M joins a string of major companies that have embarrassed themselves with racist or insensitive advertising. As CNN Money reports, in recent months, Dove has come under fire for a social media post for its body wash showing a black woman morphing into a white woman, while Kellogg raised eyebrows for a cereal box that depicted one “darker-skinned” Corn Pop character (the rest were yellow) in a janitor’s uniform, pushing a mop.
It’s exhausting enough when advertisements exhibit racism toward black people and people of color in the usual ways—be it through erasure, colorism, or playing to tired stereotypes. Is it really that tall an order that a term with a long, international and very public racial history not be slapped on a black child in 2018?
Some wondered why no one—including the young model’s parents—brought up the problematic optics before the print was published:
So did the kid’s parents not see the hoodie before H&M put it on him and put him in front of the camera? Or they found him on the street?— Lauren (@Solodeauxleaux) January 8, 2018
So all the eyes it had to go through within the company before being released to the general public & nobody at H&M thought "oh man this "coolest monkey in the jungle" hoodie on this black kid might send the wrong message" lmao the hell going on in y'all offices— I'm nobody bruh (@S_Roach) January 8, 2018
Some suggested that H&M would benefit from cultural sensitivity training and a more diverse workforce:
I hope they work to invest in cultural competency and sensitivity training for their staff and hire directors that would catch this sort of thing. https://t.co/oxuPqx1Hh6— alex medina (@mrmedina) January 8, 2018
Others pointed to a lack of diversity in the boardroom:
I’m sure the apologies are a coming. And the ads will be pulled. I’m certain there will Be media fixers and whatnot and maybe a grand gesture like a donation to some charity (donations under these circumstances are the corporate version #SomeOfMyBestFriendsAre move if there ever was one) all this tells me about @HM is that the seats in the boardroom lack something...wanna take a guess?
Diversity is a touchstone for many marketers: Recent surveys have shown that having diverse imagery in marketing and brand messaging is a top priority for marketing pros. However, there are real consequences for brands that approach diversity without careful consideration and a variety of viewpoints represented in the planning stages.
Racial insensitivity might be entrenched in H&M’s culture, and its history of messaging blunders and racist oversights has resurfaced.
This isn't the first time the Sweden-based retail chain's has been criticized for racial and ethnic insensitivity. In 2015, it drew fire after its South Africa division featured no black models. When questioned about the lack of diversity, H&M's tweeted response suggested that white models conveyed more positivity. And in 2013, H&M pulled feathered headdresses from its stores after Canadian customers complained it made fun of First Nation tribal customs.
Take note PR pros: Once your brand becomes known for mishandling diversity and inclusion, the label will follow you for years.