By Michael Asiffo
H&M ‘racist hoodie scandal’ is the most recent widespread example of ‘accidental racism in advertising’. This advertisement featured a green hoodie on a black boy, which seems harmless until one sees what was on the hoodie: “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle”.
While H&M did immediately apologize for the ad, many have tossed scathing comments and ridicule towards H&M’s way. However before one more joke gets hurled towards H&M’s way, it should be remembered that they are not the first and most likely are not the last company to make this mistake. There are numerous examples of big labels making this critical error.
Recently, VIBE 105 Correspondent Michael Asiffo sat down with Neil Foote, Founder of Foote Communications, President of the National Black Public Relations Society and Lecturer at the Mayborn School of Journalism, to better understand the concept of ‘Accidental racism in advertisement’
Michael: What were your thoughts on the (H&M) hoodie and the advertisement in general?
Neil: It’s ‘here we go again’. These kinds of ‘incidental’ incidents keep on happening and companies keep on saying ‘oh we didn’t realize it would be a problem’ but if you keep on adding them up, probably everyday there’s some incident where someone says: ‘We didn’t realize it would be a problem’. That’s what struck me as I saw my social media feed kind of blow up with people talking about this issue.
Michael: You mentioned this hasn’t been the first time, it’s the latest in many such incidents. So for me, how do companies with so much money and resources keep accidentally doing this? Or why do companies…
Neil: Keeping making the same mistake over and over again?
Neil: Or keep banging their heads against the wall. Well, I was putting together a blog post on this and did some research: you look at Pepsi and the Kendall Jenner incident in the ad where they trivialize police brutality. Look at the Nivea campaign where they had in bold letters it says “White Is Purity”. Ask Unilever with the Dove campaign where the black woman takes off her shirt and suddenly she’s a white women. Why are these happening? These are happening because they are not enough diverse folks in the room who are in the room who are at least raising the question, asking the question, being around the conversation to say:
“You know there’s something not right about this, let’s think through this before we do this and is this the message we intend to send.”
Michael: That’s the thing I keeping coming back to, there are not enough diverse people in the room, So what is going on with the hiring practices at H&M? Is it because they are based out of Sweden and there is not a lot of people of colour or are they, again, banging their heads against the wall?
Neil: Companies like H&M hire huge advertising agencies to create campaigns and create their messaging. The issue is that most of the agencies do not have diverse executive at the young level, the mid-tier level and hardly in the C-suite level. In fact the American Association of Advertising Executives did a survey and what it revealed was that 74% of the members, and these are all the major global agencies around the world, were “either mediocre or worse when it came to hiring diverse groups of employees”. So what that says is that we have an industry who acknowledges that from the creative side, from the executive side, from the copywriting side, from the campaign side, from the photo direction side, there aren’t people in the room who are saying:
“Let’s do a better job on this. Let’s be much more conscious of this audience that is increasingly more diverse racially, ethnically and culturally.”
Michael: Do you see any companies who are doing the right thing or learning from their mistakes?
Neil: Yeah. H&M immediately realized they were going down the wrong path. They instantly issued an apology, and have released the sweatshirt without the image. Let me just say that perhaps 5-10 years ago, the reaction may not have been as swift. The good and bad of social media is that negative stuff gets ‘set on fire’ and out there very quickly and it gives brands like H&M and other companies the ability to respond quickly and to do the right thing. There are some agencies doing good things and it is happening on both sides.
HP, the global technology firm sent out a directive. HP wrote last year that said, ‘look we are sending the message to our agencies that we are working with and making sure of hiring more diverse individuals, and we are going to make a more conscious effort to find firms that actually have more diverse people who are working on our campaign’. There is another agency called 72 and Sunny and they’ve issued a playbook, Mike. They have issued a playbook that says: ‘Steal our Ideas’ and laid out ten different points where agencies can move forward with this. These are points that seem common sense that companies like H&M can follow.
Michael: You mentioned something there about the reaction in the social media age: people can react very swiftly and people can respond swiftly. There seems to be this growing other side (of the argument) or the fake outrage argument. Where this is some ‘outrage’ because they see their buddy outraged and they quote unquote: “Fake the Outrage”.
Neil: You know, outrage is outrage. Usually outrage starts because it is a very emotional reaction to something that has hurt someone. So in this case, seeing a black person with a hoodie on with a phrase about monkeys is going to set off a firestorm of conversation in this world of social media. Those people who kind of pick up on it, some of them very intentional and passionate about the issue, because they have been following it or have been immersed in it in many different ways have created a voice for these issues. Yes, in this world of social media, folks will jump on it and share it and retweet information that helps take what seemingly was an isolated incident and make it a global one. (However) in cases like this hoodie, it is a good thing because it once again puts us on notice that we have to be much more conscious about the images we share and the images we create. In a multi-billion dollar industry like advertising, where agencies create images and create brands, they have to be that much more conscious about what they are doing nowadays because people are watching.
Michael: Let’s now take this from just about the black folks to everyone. Is it now time to look at ads that much be damaging to people of, for example, the Chinese people?
Neil: This is a global issue and it transcends African Americans and it affects everyone. As you said Asians, Hispanics, Native Americans, the LGBTQ community, where the phrase unconscious bias, that you see popping up along the way. That folks will fall down on “Well we made a mistake” but the reality is whether you are black, Hispanic, Asian, African American, South Asian, Native American, you are going to be that much more sensitive to some of these images. That’s why companies whether they are based in the US or Sweden or China or Japan or Africa or Canada, they need to really take notice of this global world we live in. Messaging is just not within a single isolated geographic area but really a global message.
Michael: Where can people get more information on your thoughts on this and other pressing issues?