On Monday, I learned that H&M actually stands for Hugely insensitive and Massively out of touch.

They ignited a social media firestorm with their online ad featuring an African- American child modeling a hoodie with the text “coolest monkey in the jungle.” We saw celebrities disassociating themselves from H&M and consumers vowing to avoid the troubled Swedish clothing retailer. Canadian singer, songwriter, and record producer The Weekend cut ties with the retailer in a tweet.

NBA star LeBron James posted his own version of the ad on his Instagram feed with the child wearing a king’s crown, telling H&M “you got us all wrong! And we ain’t going for it!”

New York Times columnist Charles Blow asked, “@hm, have you lost your damned minds?!?!?!”

It’s not the first time fashion retailers have stepped into a similar PR hornets’ nest. In August the Zara clothing chain was criticized for selling a striped kids’ sheriff t-shirt that looked like the uniforms worn in concentration camps during the Holocaust, as well as a swastika-decorated handbag in 2007. In 2014, H&M had to pull a tank-top with a human skull inside a Star of David.

These incidents of tone-deafness teach all of us in business four things:

  • Test any campaign on a variety of audiences. This begins at the initial stages of the creative process so you can catch any issues before you make a campaign public- whether it’s on social media, in print or your website. This is truly a Marketing 101 lesson, so I’m wondering how H&M missed it. Retail strategist Wendy Liebmann tells us that companies, especially those in the retail industry, must be overly conscious of how their products are perceived by consumers. “Sometimes this happens — a global company is not sensitive to another culture, another political commentary,” said Liebmann, chief executive of WSL Strategic Retail. “This is something that is relevant across the world. So not to be sensitive to that is an everyday issue; it’s not just the times we live in. This is a consciousness that we should all have at any time — not just at these heightened times.”
  • Include a diverse group on your creative team. This controversy showcases why you need to have a variety of voices on your team. None of us can intimately know what it’s like to live in someone else’s skin.  But all of us have the obligation to reach out and include their voices on the team that creates our products. On his Instagram account, drummer and producer Questlove brought home this point: “all this tells me about @HM is that the seats in the boardroom lack something…wanna take a guess?”
  • Listen and learn from controversy. Even after the uproar H&M, initially failed to understand the problem. Their first initial apology read: “We are deeply sorry that the picture was taken and we also regret the actual print…Therefore, we have not only removed the image from our channels, but also the garment from our product offering globally.” When pressed about how the offensive image made it through their creative process H&M originally told global business news outlet Quartz this: “We believe in diversity and inclusion in all that we do and will be reviewing all our internal policies accordingly to avoid any future issues.” I’ll bet my Alexa could have come up with something with more heart than that response (no offense to her!).
    It took 48 hours of internet drama for H&M to finally get it. They pushed a substantive apology via email (linked to their site) to customers and other stakeholders that included “…we have got this wrong and we agree that, even if unintentional, passive or casual racism needs to be eradicated wherever it exists.” There’s a lot to be learned from that, too.

  • Realize it’s 2018 – seriously. All of us in business live in a global world, selling to audiences that are increasingly diverse and sensitive to a multiplicity of issues. That’s not news. So how is it that no one at H&M – from the account managers, creatives, art directors, photographers and social media managers – raised a red flag throughout the production of this on-line ad? It’s tough for me to believe that every one of those folks chose to take a pass on reacting to this concept.

What’s particularly confusing is that H&M produced one of the best celebrations of diversity ever during this past holiday season: an on-line ad called “A Magical Holiday” starring actor and activist Jesse Williams and rapper Nicki Minaj. Check out this ode to cultural respect and female empowerment. Then ask yourself how this same company could have thought it was a good idea to put an African-American boy in a “monkey” hoodie. And, while you’re at it, think about whether your own business is making the same kind of mistakes in how you present your company to the world.

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