This week H&M learned that racism and marketing don’t go well together.
Fueled by the ever-increasing views that only the combination of traditional and online media along with amplification of social media could provide, the brand has become mired in a slew of bad publicity.
Earlier this week, H&M was forced to apologize and order a mass withdrawal of stock after publishing an ad depicting a black boy wearing a green hoodie emblazoned with “coolest monkey in the jungle”. Given a history of racist connotations being associated with the term “monkey” to demean people of African decent the ad set off alarms for many.
In case you missed the hubbub over it all, the timeline goes like this:
Jan 6: H&M launches new hoodie line
Jan 6, 7: Ads hit market, website promotion becomes active
Jan 7: Initial reaction is swift. Karamo Brown, Activist and Netflix TV Host and Producer is one of the first one board to criticize
Jan 8: Celebrity reaction gains steam, among the most notable, The Weeknd @theweeknd with 8.4 million followers, who Tweeted how shocked, embarrassed and offended he was by the photo. His initial Tweet was then retweeted 103,000 more times
Jan 8, 9: More celebrities jump on board: Diddy, Quest Love, Lebron James, Niecy Nash, all with huge social media following.
Jan 8, 9: Print and broadcast media globally pick up story where it reaches a mass audience quickly both online and off.
Jan 8, 9: Word of mouth amplifies both online and off in conversations.
Jan 8, 9: Social media goes nuts with people sharing and commenting on posts and media articles. During this time, the amplified impact of the “second wave” kicks in. People who read or heard about it through broad reaching traditional media channels help to further spread the story through their social channels, as they get up to speed.
Jan 9: H&M removes the Hoodie from their website and publicly apologizes
Jan 10: H&M public relations goes into full on crisis management mode and recruits the mother of the boy photographed to be quoted in the media, after they are alerted to her Facebook post saying “people who think the ad was racially insensitive should just get over it.”
Jan 11, 12, 13: Controversy continues to play out with articles and analysis being written about it. Each time something is written or shared, a further successive wave of readers and viewers is created that then echoes online through social media.
Jan 13: Angry protestors who claim the brand is racist vandalize H&M stores in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Generally ad controversies eventually settle down in the media. But the brand damage has been done.
So what can be learned through this? Is all publicity good publicity? In this case, I would say no. Despite receiving millions of free dollars in media attention, the controversy will most certainly have an impact of decreased sales, as brand advocates become boycotters. Will the impact last? Likely not over the long term. Eventually the story will loose steam or be replaced by the next big controversy. Could this have been a deliberate move to garner attention? Possible but unlikely. It is however most probable that this was the outcome of naivety and lack of education or cultural sensitivity to the history of racist connotations being associated with the term “monkey” to demean people of African decent. That’s not an excuse, that’s just a sad fact. Consider too that the ad had to make it past many people before hitting the market: creative directors, ad executives, photographers, copy writers and editors, plus client side there would be many more. Groupthink likely took over at some point, and nobody questioned it once the creative had been approved.
And that’s why the brand is being hung out to dry by angry activists on social media.
Of course ad controversy is not new. Anyone who can remember the shock of United Colors of Benetton ads showing a priest kissing a nun, or a black woman breast feeding a white baby will know we’ve been down this route before.
But this time feels different. Perhaps it’s due to the context of racial issues in the US with divisive politics making people more sensitive. Or perhaps it’s the power that social media now holds in broadcasting news.
One thing is for certain through. The path to media amplification is clear. Micro influencers – to celebrities – to mass media – to social media by the masses – to the recycling of mass media and social media in successive second and third waves of influence.
Perhaps there’s something positive to be pulled from that – either for your business, or for the greater good in some way.
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