By now I’m sure you’ve heard about the problematic ad H&M released and the ensuing public relations nightmare. No, you haven’t? Aright, well let me explain.
On January 8th, international pop star The Weeknd tweeted the following: “Woke up to this morning shocked and embarrassed by this photo. I’m deeply offended and won’t be working with @HM anymore…”
This was in response to an H&M’s ad, on the British version of their site that featured a black child modelling a sweater that said “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle”.
So why is this problematic? The term itself is not, because it simply denotes a primate with a long tail that lives in tropical countries. However, it becomes problematic when applied to people, especially black people, because of the history of the term being used as a slur to describe black people.
And yes, you, just like I, may have heard people referring to their own children as ‘little monkeys’ but the difference here seems to be scope. Welcome to conspiracy theory #1. In the situations where we have one person referring to their own child; we can call this the micro level. At this level whatever is done impacts very few people. Only the parent and their child who is being referred to as a monkey are impacted. In the second situation we have an international company referring to a child, and what some argue, the entire race that child belongs to. We can call this the macro level. At this level a lot of people can be impacted by the message the company is disseminating.
At the macro level the media can actually alter society’s perceptions, beliefs and values. And this is why this sweater has been so controversial. It has the potential to not only reinforce preexisting racist beliefs, but also to create new subconscious connections between animals and races. Okay, okay, this point may be a bit of conspiracy theory, but anything is possible! I mean, it’s 2018 and people need to be told not to eat laundry detergent. But I digress.
The history of the terms ‘ape and monkey’ have been ascribed to those of African descent by colonizers from the first time European’s landed in Western Africa. Black people were labelled as being more simian than man, with simian meaning ape or monkey. This way of describing black individuals expanded into the Americas with the Atlantic slave trade and actually was used to justify the enslavement of those with dark skin.
For whatever reason, H&M, being based in Sweden, may not have been aware of the historical context that is attached to the word monkey when it’s in reference to a black individual. But, when you have locations in countries such as the USA and South Africa where race relations are very tense, someone somewhere along the chain of command has to take some responsibility for their lack of knowing. In philosophy we would call this attempt to understand why we don’t know Agnotology. I’d suggest that H&M needs some philosophers in some senior roles.
Welcome to conspiracy theory #2. Maybe the company knew full well that there would be backlash from the ad. Maybe they just wanted to generate some news coverage because any coverage is good coverage, or at least that’s what they say. This theory would be supported by the fact that in the last quarter of 2017 they had reported a drop in their sales revenue. In fact, it was the lowest drop that they’ve experienced in at least a decade. But the backlash that ensued certainly couldn’t have raised their sales … unless overt racists suddenly swarmed the brand as a reaction to those whom were offended by the ad? Doesn’t seem very likely to me, so I’ll let go of this tinfoil hat explanation.
While I do think that this sweater occurrence was a simple mistake, H&M to question how this picture could not have been foreseen as a potential public relations issue. Race relations in the western world are very tense at the moment, so anything involving POC (people of color) really ought to be onceover-ed for potential racist connotations. I mean that would just be good PR, accounting for potential issues and planning for ways to combat them. But what do I know? I mean I’m only a public relations student.
Here are my two cent recommendations for H&M:
- Invest in philosophers to analyze why you don’t seem to know some very important things about history, context, connotation and ignorance
- Hire better PR people who can effectively use image repair theory to help repair your company’s image
- Consult more people of color when using people of color in ads, campaigns etc.
- Don’t just apologize and remove the image, explain why the issue occurred and how it will be avoided
That’s all for now folks. Tell me your thoughts, I’d like to hear about your take on the situation. Thanks for reading. ❤