Who would have thought that the fallout from H&M’s “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle” catalogue photoshoot would result in calls for a boycott, being dropped by celebrity ambassadors, vandalism of its stores in South Africa, and the boy-model’s family having to move home for security reasons?
Well, actually, any comms professional worth their salt should have predicted all these things as possible outcomes, especially when dealing with a multinational brand like H&M.
Much has already been written about the need for diversity in the H&M’s creative teams that I don’t need to add to the chorus. I will say a lot of those throwing stones should first check that their homes aren’t made of glass. What I’d like to do is examine H&M’s mistakes from a comms perspective and offer insights on how brands can avoid similar problems. Let’s get insight one out of the way “don’t use a black kid to model a jumper saying “coolest monkey in the jungle”. The history of the word monkey used as a slur against black people is well known and well documented that an oversight, is to me, frankly, negligent. However, H&M’s decision making after the image was shared on Twitter was diabolical, and it speaks to a lack of awareness of the seriousness of racism and an underestimation of how social media can spread and also distort narratives.
When you look closer at the story, you begin to appreciate how international it was and thus how the social and racial context in each country manifested itself in different reactions. Firstly, the photoshoot took place in Sweden, presumably with a Swedish creative team. I can see, but not excuse, how a team where English might not be the everyday working language could miss the inappropriateness of using a black model for that item of clothing. Secondly, the jumper was sold in H&M UK. Here, I begin to slowly shake my head. Yes, Brits use the term “monkey” as a common term of affection for kids, so it’s understandable that no red flags came up at the sight of the jumper, but the jumper on a black kid? That should have been handled with a phone call to Sweden to do a reshoot. Thirdly, the reactions to the image were primarily coming from the US (Manifest’s The Loop web monitoring tool determined 89% of the conversations on twitter originated in the US). Most Americans did not know the Swedish and British components of the story and simply assumed H&M had messed up (and the H&M in their context is H&M USA- the stores they see in their malls). When you also consider that black Americans are over-indexed on Twitter, it’s clear to see that H&M was going to be in for relentless castigation from angry tweeters. The indignation from black celebrities spread the story further and rallied people to call for a boycott. Finally, a week later, in South Africa, fears for employee safety after protesters broke into some stores resulted in the closure of all H&M outlets in the country.
In today’s borderless digital world, brands cannot afford to think locally. H&M thought they could contain this as a UK issue and their initial tepid response (deleting the image with the model but still selling the jumper) showed that they did not fully appreciate the frustrations and anger that many black customers around the world had. They offered a local solution for a complex global crisis. It was bound to come up short. It was only after almost two days of sustained rage and aggrieved think pieces did they issue a full apology promising they “will thoroughly investigate why this happened to prevent this type of mistake from happening again.” I really hope that while they take a look at the composition of their creative teams they also consider how and why a deeper understanding of international socio-historical factors is imperative to thriving as a global brand.
P.S: One more thing H&M, whatever you do, please don’t ship your haul of unsold monkey jumpers to African countries. Please!
About Julian Obubo
Growing up in Nigeria and The Netherlands, Julian Obubo is what some might call a ‘third culture kid’ (a child raised in a culture other than their parents) After studying public relations in the North East, at Sunderland and Newcastle universities, he moved to London in 2012 to pursue a career in PR. Having ties to three very different countries has given Julian a keen interest in issues around identity, multiculturalism and diversity. His passion for these topics led him to head up the Diversity and Equality department at Manifest London, the comms agency he has worked at for nearly six years. In 2017, Julian was named in PR Week’s prestigious 30 Under 30, an annual list of thirty young stars of UK PR.