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Old Navy Suspends Its Juneteenth Campaign Following Influencer Backlash

Missteps included asking Black influencers to lay out money for product and offering below-market rates in the marketing effort tied to the holiday celebrating the end of slavery in the US.
An Old Navy retail location.
An Old Navy retail location. Shutterstock

When the influencer agency Mavrck reached out to Black influencers last month asking them to participate in a Juneteenth campaign for Old Navy, the intention, according to an email seen by BoF, was to “amplify the Black experience.”

Instead, the campaign became a cautionary tale about what not to do when working with Black talent.

The email, sent to about 300 influencers, asked recipients to apply to join the campaign. They were instructed to buy a special Old Navy Juneteenth T-shirt to wear in sponsored posts that would appear around the holiday, which celebrates the end of slavery (the email indicated Old Navy would reimburse anyone selected).

Some influencers took issue with having to purchase the shirt when brands routinely gift merchandise for campaigns. The quoted rate, $425 for one in-grid post and three stories, also seemed low to some recipients; while many of the influencers contacted by Mavrck had small followings, others had amassed 100,000 or more followers and could command thousands of dollars for sponsored posts.

On Wednesday, shortly after Old Navy was contacted by BoF, the Gap-owned retailer said it was pulling its Juneteenth campaign.

“We are disappointed that this campaign outreach, conducted by an outside agency, did not reflect our provided direction, brand spirit or best practices,” a spokesperson said. “Old Navy is inclusive by design and committed to amplifying voices that have been historically underrepresented. We are pausing this campaign to ensure that we — and any agency that represents us — are working with influencers in a way that reflects our brand values.”

Mavrck chief executive Lyle Stevens told BoF that the agency had mistakenly included influencers with large followings on its list of micro-influencers and that it had separately emailed 50 macro-level influencers, asking for their rate. He said the $425 rate was higher than what Mavrck has historically paid to micro-influencers for similar campaigns. The request to buy the T-shirts was made to ensure influencers were able to make their posts in time for the campaign, and Stevens clarified that only influencers who would be selected would have to buy the shirts, which would later be reimbursed. In a later statement, he said Mavrck’s clients “ultimately approve all aspects of campaigns.”

We are pausing this campaign to ensure that we — and any agency that represents us — are working with influencers in a way that reflects our brand values.

“We will listen and learn from the valuable feedback surrounding the structure of this campaign,” Stevens said. “While we understand the brand’s decision to pause this campaign, we hope the feedback can be incorporated so... influencers who are excited to collaborate with Old Navy are still able to be compensated, because Mavrck prioritizes inclusive and equitable influencer marketing campaigns.”

Old Navy’s Juneteenth campaign is an example of how, nearly a year since the murder of George Floyd and the anti-racism protests it sparked, brands are still ironing out their approach to the Black community.

Campaigns featuring Black influencers — especially around Juneteenth, a holiday many retailers ignored before 2020 — are one of the more visible ways brands have signified they support racial equality. But the influencers tapped for these marketing efforts say they are still treated differently than their white peers. Many report getting paid less than white influencers with comparable followings. Top-tier Black influencers say they aren’t gifted merchandise as often or are asked to work in exchange for product.

As Juneteenth becomes a fixture in the marketing calendar, experts say marketers need to handle campaigns around the holiday with extra sensitivity.

“Juneteenth is a very specific day; it has a significant meaning,” said Marie Denee, a plus-size fashion influencer who consults for an influencer agency. “Any brands that are going to be using it to promote themselves must make sure they are uplifting the Black talent they work with as best as they can, and not just give them table scraps.”

The Wrong Approach

One common mistake brands make is to send a generic pitch to a large number of influencers, which can create the impression that Black creators are interchangeable, said Beca Alexander, founder and president of influencer agency Socialyte.

“Brands should be taking the time to do research and find influencers they admire and think are a good fit,” said Alexander. “Mass-emailing influencers and asking them to do the work is super offensive across the board.”

Brands and marketing agencies should also be aware of the history of pay disparities between Black and white influencers, and raise their rates accordingly, said Chrissy Rutherford, co-founder of the diversity and inclusion consulting company 2BG.

“If you’re looking to profit off the proximity of a Black influencer, you need to be doing your part against systemic racism and that means paying Black talent fairly,” Rutherford said.

If you’re looking to profit off the proximity of a Black influencer, you need to be doing your part against systemic racism and that means paying Black talent fairly.

Mavrck’s Stevens said some influencers had come back to the agency asking for a higher rate for the Old Navy Juneteenth campaign.

Black influencers shouldn’t have to constantly be fighting for better pay, said Christina Abiola, a Black beauty influencer from New Jersey who has nearly 90,000 followers (Abiola did not receive the Old Navy campaign email).

“There is constant low-balling,” she said.

Latoya Shauntay Snell, a Brooklyn-based influencer who did not receive the Old Navy email, said the agency’s offer sounded low. She has about 64,000 followers and her rate starts at $2,000 per collaboration with brands like Eloquii and Hoka One One.

Snell said influencer agencies play a role in enabling unfair treatment of Black influencers.

“I question the diversity behind the scenes. Do you have any Black or brown people working on these campaigns that understand our worth?” she said, adding that “it’s on the influencer agency to offer a fair wage but it’s on the brand to actually investigate the third party they hire and make sure they are a company that values Black talent.”

Denee said she sees low-ball offers to influencers as a sign that brands don’t value spending by Black consumers.

“There’s this idea that the quality of our audiences is low,” she said. “And never mind that not all of our followers are Black and that the Black consumer has [over a trillion] worth of spending power.”

Nicole Ocran, an influencer based in the UK and co-founder of the Creator’s Union, a union for influencers and digital creators, said she and other Black influencers don’t like requests to buy product in advance of campaigns because the fashion industry often asks them to do extra work.

Do you have any Black or brown people working on these campaigns that understand our worth?

“I am constantly asked to do work in exchange for product and these requests come from the same brands that post about Black Lives Matter,” Ocran said. “That a brand can’t even send you a T-shirt ahead of their campaign speaks to how little they think we’re worth.”

The Right Approach to Juneteenth

The T-shirt Old Navy planned to promote through the Juneteenth campaign is a part of Gap Inc.’s Project We collection, an initiative the company started in January and features shirts with illustrations from a diverse roster of artists (the Juneteenth shirt has an illustration from Black artist Monica Ahanonu). Gap doesn’t donate proceeds from these shirts but has pledged $1 million to the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. Gap Inc. has also signed the 15 Percent Pledge and committed $510,000 to support black fashion education.

That a brand can’t even send you a T-shirt ahead of their campaign speaks to how little they think we’re worth.

Now that the campaign has been cancelled, Old Navy said it would “utilise the earmarked funds to collaborate with valued BIPOC creative partners on upcoming campaigns.” The Juneteenth shirt will still be available for sale later this month.

Rutherford said Juneteenth shouldn’t be used as an opportunity to sell or promote any branded product. Instead, fashion’s view of Juneteenth should be to demonstrate how brands are tackling racial equality.

“Use the day to talk about what you’ve done since June 2020 and how you’re diversifying your company,” Rutherford said. “I don’t want to see a T-shirt, I want to see how brands are going to help move the needle.”

Related Articles:

The Truth About Black Buying Power

Unpacking Fashion’s Updated Approach to Black History Month

Fixing the Whitewashed Influencer Economy

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