How Not to Be H&M

If you heard a rumble in the jungle yesterday is was the internet coming full force at Swedish retailer H & M for this offensive ad selling a child’s sweatshirt:

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The ad was taken down after a twitterstorm of critique, 960,000 news articles and spokesperson The Weekend announced he was breaking up with the brand. The damage is done. This isn’t H&M’s first rodeo, either.  They caught similar heat for using all white models in South Africa.  They had a wake-up call and apparently hit snooze.   In this latest all-too-predictable episode, alarm and outrage from consumers were met with a tepid apology from H & M:

“We sincerely apologize for this image,” the company said in a statement. “It has been removed from all online channels and the product will not be for sale in the United States. We believe in diversity and inclusion in all that we do.”

Yes, that is correct.  They believe in diversity but will still be selling the t-shirt somewhere where you snowflakes won’t whine about it–namely in the UK.  So H&M hit snooze again. That barely passes the apology test.

 

The association between black people and monkeys, an association used to dehumanize black people and justify atrocities ranging from slavery to lynching to police brutality is perhaps one of the most well know negative stereotype of black people.  The global domination of American media means that even in Sweden, the images of white supremacy are familiar. As many people tweeted, someone should have caught this.

We have to move beyond the outrage machine.  Advertisers are experts at advertising, but that doesn’t automatically make them experts in cultural consciousness. So what can ad agencies do to avoid these missteps that can cost billion-dollar companies big in terms of boycotts and brand damage?

Start at the top

Thinking about diversity and inclusion should start long before the pitch. Connecting with consumers is the very heart of advertising, and connecting with diverse audiences should be at the heart of your agency’s values.  Women, minorities, people of different backgrounds and abilities make up the majority of America–and the world.

Senior management sets the tone. This means that executive teams should model the inclusiveness they seek for the whole agency. Agencies looking to do diversity right need to be sure executives have the time, knowledge and tools needed to make sure that diversity and inclusion isn’t just a value on paper.  Training your management team and arming them with a strategic plan with specifics will ensure they are prepared to turn inclusion from a buzzword into an action verb.

 Get the right people in the room

When bad ads come out, people often ask who was in the room.  Chances are high that there was little diversity: people of color remain underrepresented in the creative workforce.   While there has been an increase in gender representation since the Mad Men days, racial and cultural diversity remains an elusive goal for many agencies.

Having a diverse group of people working at an agency isn’t just about doing the right thing, it is about assembling a team that will have the skills needed to thrive in a complex cultural environment. According to Adobe’s recently released report, Creativity’s Diversity Disconnect,  lack of access and information about potential careers in advertising are a part of the problem, but the same report also indicates that creatives of color found barriers to success even once they were in the workplace. Diversifying your workforce should include pipeline development, hiring, and most importantly retention and promotion strategies.  This is a long game–despite widespread agreement in the field that diversity is important there is a long way to go and it will take time. But it won’t happen at all if agencies don’t develop and execute strategic plans to make the shift.

 

Make Everyone Responsible

Lots of critics of H&M asked why the parents didn’t step in.  I suggest you don’t depend on the parents or the model to protect your billion-dollar brand. Making sure you have people who can spot an error before it goes out the door is key. That doesn’t mean scuttling your current workforce, it means training them. While you are working on growing diversity in-house, give all your employees the tools they need with training in culturally-conscious production.  Regular training, as well as opportunities to keep current and learn from others’ wins and losses, can help ensure there is always someone in the room ready to ask the right questions.

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The data is clear–America is becoming more diverse.  Diverse audiences are looking for advertising that respects and reflects their experiences.   Not only that, when advertising reproduces old racist ideas, audiences have the tools to quickly organize, calling for boycotts and trashing offending brands. This isn’t a trend, it is a new day.  Agencies need to shift their thinking about diversity from an add-on to absolutely critical and find ways to support diversity efforts beyond the hire date. Leadership that models and values diversity, processes that consider culturally-conscious production, and time for training and discussion can make diversity everybody’s business, a value that will reflect in the work.

 

Susan X Jane

Susan X Jane is a diversity educator, speaker and trainer. She thinks a lot about media and race…a lot. She teaches Communications at Wheelock College, writes and speaks about media…and race... and generally encourages everyone she meets to think about the way media shapes their sense of self and their ideas and beliefs about the world. If you're reading this, she wants you to think about it too. Want to talk about it? Let's go.

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