How a Hoody Landed H&M in a Racism Scandal

Tom Stevenson
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“Hey, do you think this product looks OK? What about this image, do you think that’s fine? Is this something we can get the head office to sign off?”

These are just a few of the questions I’d like to think were asked by the marketing team at H&M before they went ahead with what has to be one of the worst advertising images of all time.

Even then, alarm bells should have been ringing at what they were about to post on their online site. If you haven’t come across this marketing mishap before, here’s the lowdown.

Back in 2018, H&M released an image on its website which caused a backlash. The image in question shows a child wearing a green hoody with the words, “Coolest Monkey In The Jungle” on the front.

The wording alone isn’t the most appropriate for this day and age, coming across as tone-deaf. But it was the child wearing it that sent social media into a meltdown. The child was Black.

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screenshot by author

As was to be expected, the backlash was swift and unforgiving. Multiple figures weighed in criticising H&M. New York Times columnist Charles Blow, summed up the thoughts of many with this question: “H&M, have you lost your damned minds?!”

The singer The Weeknd, who had a partnership with the brand which included modelling the company’s clothes at Paris Fashion Week, stated he would no longer be working with them.

Then, prominent figures such as basketball superstar LeBron James and rapper P Diddy posted altered images of the ad on their Instagram pages. Showing a more uplifting and less racially charged message than the one H&M used.

With a crisis on their hands, H&M had to release a statement, but the one they did release was condemned as lame. In it, they apologised for posting the image and that it had been removed from all online channels while stating the hoody would not be sold in the United States.

This doesn’t sound like much of an apology, instead, it sounds like they were sorry they were caught. The online community and media agreed, and with the backlash intensifying, H&M had to release another apology a day later.

“We understand that many people are upset about the image. We, who work at H&M, can only agree. 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. It is obvious that our routines have not been followed properly. This is without any doubt. We will thoroughly investigate why this happened to prevent this type of mistake from happening again.”

The amazing thing about this furore is that it isn’t the first time H&M has been embroiled in a scandal over their products. In 2017, the company sold a hoody with the words “Unemployed” displayed on the front of it. Understandably, many regarded this as trivialising poverty and the item was soon taken out of circulation.

With past form, you’d think H&M would be more aware than most companies of where to draw the line. Apparently not. This incident reveals several truths about marketing in general and the reality for big brands.

One is that brands such as H&M cannot afford to rock the boat with their products. With their employment practices called into question, the burning of excess stock, and the conditions in sweatshops factories, the last thing brands need to do is to invite more controversy their way.

Plus, with more and more of the shopping process going online, they need to be sensitive to the fact that this will put many people out of work, including some of their employees.

What this incident reveals about marketing is that the phrase “any publicity is good publicity” does not apply. Like Dolce & Gabbana, if you post videos trivialising another country’s culture, or post a clearly racist image, it’s going to damage your company.

What’s more shocking is that this was easily avoidable. I still don’t know how this image was allowed to be posted on H&M’s website. Who was in control of the process? Did they not see the obvious racism in the image and the inevitable backlash that would follow? How was it allowed to go live on their site?

Being edgy and out there is a fine marketing strategy and one that can work wonders, but only if you do it right. If you push the envelope too far, you’re going to invite trouble. Racism, obvious or not, is not a marketing strategy that is going to work today, or any time in the future.

In the end, H&M should have adopted this adage, if it looks like it may cause offence, it probably will.

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