H&M came under heavy scrutiny earlier this month for an advertisement image placed on its UK web site, showing a black child wearing a green sweatshirt with the words “coolest monkey in the jungle” on the front. The misstep sparked outrage at the company for the perceived racist overtones, and there were even protests at some H&M stores in South Africa.
As if the post itself wasn’t bad enough, the retailer actually may have made it worse by not taking it down until after the deluge of complaints came in.
The company actually apologized twice in the wake of the controversy. To me, this is a sign that they felt like they dropped the ball on the first one — and they did. The first apology didn’t show contrition for the act, and it wasn’t until they released a second statement to Pitchfork (and then again on Twitter) that the company acknowledged it had made in error in its approval routines and would remove the garment.
On January 17, more than a week after the backlash began, H&M appeared to have taken its first major step in the right direction, hiring a diversity leader. Annie Wu will fill the role of Global Leader for Diversity and Inclusiveness, but it is unclear exactly what her role will be, or how it ties to merchandising or any of the issues that caused the mayhem.
Beware The Angry, Image-Conscious Celebrity
The H&M gaffe also shows the power of celebrity influence on retail, particularly in the fashion industry. Two musicians, singer The Weeknd and rapper G-Eazy, ended their partnership with the retailer after the post gained notoriety. The Weeknd had worked on ad campaigns and collaborations with the Swedish retailer for his XO brand since 2017, while G-Eazy was anticipating launching a menswear fashion line in March 2018. Both artists posted statements on Twitter expressing their dissatisfaction with the brand and announcing their decision to part ways.
One of the most famous professional athletes in the U.S., NBA player LeBron James, also revealed his displeasure with H&M, but opted to spin the situation in a more positive light by posting a new version of the photo. In this shot he had a crown on his head and a crown was taped over the shirt with the phrase “King of the World” placed on top. While James has never been affiliated with H&M, he made $55 million through endorsements alone in 2016. If anyone has shown the ability to singlehandedly sway people’s opinions of a brand, it’s him.
Image from the Twitter account of Lebron James
Given that retailers often rely on celebrities to push products, these companies need to engage them quickly in the event of a mishap such as the H&M ad.
“If you’re H&M, you have to take a very personalized approach when it comes to dealing with celebrities right now,” Rizzetta said. “The backlash came quickly from the celebs, and it’s only going to continue to pick up steam as we go forward. In H&M’s case, they need to make sure they respond to each celebrity in a one-on-one setting. They need to make sure they’re addressing each celebrity’s concerns, especially the ones that have the most influence. Celebrities tend to be the best BS detectors in the world when it comes to which brands and key stakeholders they are surrounding themselves with and which ones are insincere, just because they’re constantly surrounded by a world of folks who are in their ear about a million and one things.”