GOBBLE GOBBLE GOBBLE.
That’s the sound in your head this week if you’re an advertising manager in H&M headquarters.
You’ve just been eaten alive by the media, the public, and your bosses, and spat out onto the sad scrapheap of Biggest Advertising Fails In Living Memory.
Dubbed the ‘monkey hoodie scandal’, the tone-deaf ad the world is talking about has fuelled a massive international racism row, grown legs longer than Giselle’s and sparked a debate about diversity-sensitive campaigning in the age of social media.
The infamous ad featured a little black boy wearing a hoodie saying ‘coolest monkey in the jungle’. Major blunder. It caused an unprecedented backlash against H&M lasting nearly two weeks and the fallout is, by any standard, enormous. Celebrities like Diddy and Le Bron James slammed the company for being racially insensitive, while other big names immediately pulled their association with the company.
Things got political. The uproar involved the Economic Freedom Fighters party in South Africa staging protests outside several of H&M’s stores in the country, some of which were broken into, ransacked and eventually shut for health and safety reasons. Innocent employees of the company were harassed and attacked.
The company issued an unequivocal apology, claiming it was an oversight. They are probably telling the truth – but that doesn’t matter in #posttruth world. Plus, offence is offence.
The actual truth is, if the same ad appeared 13 years ago, it wouldn’t have generated a third of the reaction nor publicity. Not because it wouldn’t have offended people. It would have. But the level and intensity of the public uproar would have been more moderate. Why? Because Twitter was created in 2006, people. Social media now makes it possible for an ad uploaded in one country to be viewed, shared, liked and retweeted within seconds anywhere else in the world. Social media is borderless, so the days of ad campaigns being confined to specific jurisdictions with their own specific cultural norms, no longer exist.
There’s another reason for the intensity of the reaction. The demographic of Twitter users is largely 18 to 29 year-olds, a generation that prioritises having strong values on issues like race, gender equality and civil rights. They live in an information-heavy world, where authority gets challenged and justice gets pursued. They grew up with leaders like Barack Obama and Sheryl Sandberg, and call out wrong when they see it jeopardise these values.
And once this cohort gets lit up about controversy, Twitter is a toxic tinderbox – and no one knows how to put out the flames. Not even brands with major marketing muscle like H&M.
The monkey hoodie scandal isn’t the first advertising hoo-ha to have sounded a bum note with the tricky Twittersphere community.
Remember Pepsi’s ‘Just Live For The Moments’ junk? Their crack team came up with an ad that involved a Kardashian single-handedly diffusing tensions with cops at a civil rights march by handing one a can of soda. Screech!
Pepsi were accused of appropriating civil rights and protest movements to sell their product and it sunk like a stone. The brand looked so mortifyingly out of touch with the zeitgeist they made Dale Winton seem current.
Kelloggs were accused of being racially insensitive last October after a cover of its Corn Pops box showed dozens of yellow-coloured corns, and a single brown one in a blue uniform pushing a floor buffer. They apologised.
Dove, a company lauded for its ethnically diverse marketing campaigns, can get it wrong too. In October, they had to apologise for running with an ad that said ‘Ready For A Dove Shower?’ and was accompanied with a looping image of a black woman removing her top to reveal a white one.
Global skincare brand Nivea has also shipped its fair share of controversy over racist advertising. Last year it circulated a deodorant ad telling people ‘white is purity’, which was heavily promoted by right-wing groups on social media. They also were recently attacked for encouraging Africans to ‘lighten your skin’ – as if fair skin was a mark of prosperity and health.
Controversial advertising that gets up people’s noses is as old as the hills. But social – and its ability to drive the broader media narrative – has changed the game. The context has shifted. Multinationals and giant global brands now more than ever must consider strongly differences in cultural views, norms and sensitivities between the various markets they sell into.
In the meantime, embattled H&M has hired a diversity leader to help ensure racial sensitivity is folded into future campaigns. It’s a classic crisis management move, and a costly one.
A basic dose of cultural cop on in the age of Twitter and mass media would have done the trick.
Amy Rose Harte is a public relations consultant who specialises in corporate communications and media training.