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Why do brands create offensive advertising?

OUTRAGE: H&M has been forced to apologise over its advert – but maintains that its ‘error’ was accidental

THE outrage that followed the H&M ‘coolest monkey in the jungle’ gaffe has prompted a debate about whether such incidents are deliberate on the part of the marketing teams that produce them.

Following the advert’s appearance and the ensuing backlash, H&M was forced into an apology. In a statement it said: “Our position is simple – we have got this wrong and we are deeply sorry.


“This incident is accidental in nature, but this doesn’t mean we don’t take it extremely seriously or understand the upset and discomfort it has caused.”

However, many in the black community, unconvinced by this apology, have wondered aloud whether the ads were a deliberate use of racist imagery and words in an online marketing world where companies face fierce competition for brand mentions on social media.

Some have pointed to the fact that since the backlash, and the subsequent apology, H&M has been trending on social media. The fallout from the H&M ad is just the latest in a long line of recent similar incidents.

RACE ROW: The innocent young model who starred in H&M’s advert now caught up in a row over racism

In October, beauty brand Dove came under fire after showing a black woman turning white after using its soap. The “deeply ignorant” campaign sees a black woman peeling off her T-shirt to reveal a white woman underneath her skin.

A further image shows the white woman undressing to reveal an Asian woman. Following an outcry on social media, the company later apologised for the offence the ad had caused. In 2016, Gap Kids’ was also strongly criticised when its campaign, meant to empower girls, featured a black girl being used as an “armrest” for a taller white girl.

Also in 2016, Qiaobi, one of China’s leading brands, produced an ad which featured a woman pushing a black man into a washing machine, only for him to emerge as a ‘cleaner’ Chinese man.

The ad ended with the words: “Change, it all starts from Qiaobi laundry detergent pod.” Thailand-based cosmetics company Seoul Secret faced a firestorm of criticism for a 2016 ad which featured a model discussing the value of having fair skin.

She says in the ad: “If I stop taking care of myself, everything I have worked for, the whiteness I have invested in, may be lost.” As she speaks on the career misfortunes that would happen if she stopped her skin-lightening regime, her skin begins to darken as a second model remains with fair skin.

“White makes you win,” she says, adding that the advertised product “helps you not return to black”. And in 2011, Nivea released a magazine ad featuring a clean- shaven black man preparing to throw a black mask that sported an afro and beard. The ad read: "Look like you
give a damn – Re-civilize yourself.”


Among those who believe that the use of racist imagery in adverts is deliberate is singer and TV presenter Jamelia. She tweeted: “I’m absolutely convinced that these corporations are using black outrage as a marketing ploy. It’s becoming ridiculous now.”

Zubaida Chow from London tweeted: “(The) H&M thing was not accidental. Marketing, advertising process are very long and rigourous ... are you telling me that not one person among the possible 50 people it went thru [sic] didn’t stop to think, ‘Hey that’s wrong’?”

Also on Twitter, DeShayyla wrote: “What if I told you H&M posted that black boy as a marketing strategy for free promotion. You see racism, they see business – just like Dove.”
While acknowledging these views, Sandra Kerr, national campaign director for Business in the Community’s Race Equality campaign, believes that rather than acts of deliberate racism, the fall out from adverts that cause such offence is the result of a lack of diversity in the marketing teams of leading brands.


She told The Voice: “If you take the H&M case, for example, or if the team had been reflective of the customer base, someone on the design team someone would have been able to stop it. They would have been able to say, ‘Hold on a minute, this is not acceptable’.

“The talent pool has to reflect the diverse customer base so that they do not open themselves to situations in the way that H&M has done. The reputational risk is huge. It’s embarrassing for the organisation and it’s not the type of public relations that they want.

SPEAKING OUT: Sandra Kerr says a non-diverse workplace can be costly

“These types of mistakes can be costly for a company to fix, so it’s better to avoid them from the outset.” Kerr added: “It’s exactly why we say that we need better diversity in our workplaces to avoid this type of situation, not just in terms of how products are made and advertised, but also in terms of its internal polices.”

Business in the Community has long championed the need for greater diversity in the UK workplace, arguing that it is not just a moral issue, but a strong business one. A 254-page Government strategy, published by Prime Minister Theresa May in December, suggested that if black and minority ethnic (BAME) employees were given the same opportunities as white workers and were able to “fully participate” when it came to applying for jobs and getting promotions the UK economy would receive a £24 billion boost.

However, Kerr said that despite these compelling arguments fear and ignorance in UK boardrooms remained significant barriers.


She said: “There is unconscious bias in the sense that people like to recruit people who are like themselves and stick to what they’re comfortable with. The reason we work on things like getting statistical evidence about the benefits of diversity is that it helps people not have places to hide.

“The reason it’s so important is that if you look at the primary and secondary school demographic in the UK, one in four is from an ethnic minority background. The future talent and consumer pipeline is diverse so we have to stamp out all of these barriers so we arrive at a place where it doesn’t matter what you’re ethnicity is, you have a chance of getting to the top.”

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