Kelly O’Hanlon, senior lecturer in PR at Birmingham City University’s School of Media, discusses the accusations of clothing retailer H&M sharing a ‘racist’ advert.

H&M. A Swedish clothing brand with global reach and the pull of stars such as The Weeknd behind it. That is, until now. One image featuring a hoodie with an ill-chosen phrase and model later, and the high profile musician no longer wants to have anything to do with the company. Their image no longer matches his image. And the very image of H&M in turn has been called into question by many who too have been outraged by this particular communication insensitivity.

In case you haven’t seen the image in question, H&M featured a boys’ hoodie with the text ‘Coolest monkey in the jungle’ on the front, modelled by a young black model, on their website. This was picked up on and quickly shared on social media where it spread like wildfire. Whilst the offence it generated is understandable – of course, no-one should tell other people what they should and shouldn’t be offended by – the act of sharing it turned it into an issue that could reach, and therefore offend, more people.

The image was one of thousands used on the website, rather than selected for an advert – although some media reports and social posts are stating that it was an ad – and it is most likely an unfortunate case of no-one seeing the connection between the choice of model and the slogan on the jumper.

Monkeys are a common motif in childrenswear, and a pet name used by many parents without a thought. It’s the combination of the words monkey and jungle and the relation to the model that was chosen to wear the top emblazoned with what turns out to be a provocative phrase. Perhaps if it had been an image rather than text on the hoodie, no-one would have made such a connection; so too if the child had been of another ethnicity, the issue wouldn’t have been raised.

A poll of BCU media students and Twitter followers today suggests that 27% find the H&M image very offensive, 57% can see why there has been such a response but 16% feel it’s an unfortunate mistake on the part of the marketeers. In terms of reputation, 56% of our students and followers think that there will be some short term impact to the brand; but of course, we will all be looking at H&M and other similar brands for the next ‘slip up’.

Some feel that the public is always looking for the next big thing to be offended by, but regardless of whether you are offended or not, the fact remains that in 2018, following on from many examples in the not so distant past of racially insensitive choices in the world of promotion, brands should be sensitive to such loaded phrases and how they approach representation and diversity. The roots of the use of ‘monkey’ as a racial slur are dark and disturbing, but perhaps younger or unaffected generations aren’t as aware or as sensitised to it.

The issue here for the marketers is the apparent lack of sensitivity to issues that frankly shouldn’t be issues in modern society, begging the question is there a lack of representation in the teams that create such images for them not to see the potential interpretations of the content they create?

The issue here from a PR perspective is in the initial response from H&M which seems to be rather lacklustre – simply apologising for any offence caused and removing the item from sale – which is perhaps the bigger concern in terms of reputational damage. This first response may actually fan the flames of outrage, as those who have voiced their offence will undoubtedly see the brief statement as unsatisfactory and not recognising the strength of feeling on this issue.

In the grand scheme of things, this case in point is a small one and may not impact on H&M in the long-term as memories fade; that is, if the likes of The Weeknd allow this issue to fade or whether it’s taken as an opportunity to influence change.

After all, this isn’t the first time H&M has had to apologise; in November last year, they withdrew a children’s top that had the words ‘Dog fight in random alley’ as part of the graphic design, after complaints and a petition from PETA.

Right now, as an example, Asda currently has a top that says ‘Boys will be boys’ on it; something that has been done before and which caused some outrage with parents across Facebook groups for the implied meaning of this. And of course, this latest story has reminded us of the errors Dove made last year in their advertising, in particular the Facebook advert which showed a lady changing her t-shirt and in turn, changing race from black to white. The important part of that particular example is that the white lady then changed into another ethnicity, but that doesn’t make for as neat a media story of racism at the hands of multinational organisations.

The response to such consumer outrage is the critical point and it will be interesting to see if any further response is offered by H&M in the coming days. H&M and all other brands should be looking to themselves and to their creative output to see if they are being diverse, responsible and representative – or if they are open to criticism for having none of these qualities we expect from the brands we buy from.

Kelly O’Hanlon is a senior lecturer in PR at Birmingham City University’s School of Media. View the Media and Communication PR course.

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