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Why Fashion Campaigns Need Sensitivity Checks

The outcry over Zara’s ill-conceived, poorly-timed campaign this week highlights the blind spots that fashion brands routinely make apparent in their advertising.
Zara shopping bag.
The outcry over Zara’s ill-conceived, poorly-timed campaign this week highlights the blind spots that fashion brands routinely make apparent in their advertising. (Shutterstock)
BoF PROFESSIONAL

The fashion industry can’t seem to learn from its marketing mistakes.

This week, fast fashion giant Zara found itself at the centre of a social media firestorm for a campaign gone wrong. Called “The Jacket,” imagery showed models surrounded by broken-down wood crates, shards of drywall and mannequins wrapped in plastic. Online, the scenes almost immediately drew comparison to photos of the devastation from the Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip.

Within days, Zara pulled the ads and apologised on Instagram for any offence caused, stating that the campaign, which was meant to depict “a series of images of unfinished sculptures in a sculptor’s studio and was created with the sole purpose of showcasing craft-made garments in an artistic context” had been conceptualised and shot before the war began in October. The post received over 271,000 mostly negative comments.

There’s no question that Zara releasing “The Jacket” in the current climate was a mistake. The wider pattern — a brand releases a campaign or product that’s at best insensitive and at worst racist or predatory, consumers hit back on social media, the brand repents — has become all too familiar in recent years.

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It was around this time last year that Balenciaga found itself embroiled in scandal over a campaign that showed children holding bondage-inspired teddy bears. In 2018, Dolce & Gabbana raised the ire of Chinese consumers after it released a campaign widely deemed to be racist that showed an Asian model struggling to eat Italian food with chopsticks. Gucci and Prada have also both come under fire for releasing products slammed as racist.

The fashion industry, which has always relied on pushing creative boundaries and generating conversation to sell products, is by definition at a higher risk of touching off controversies than companies selling orange juice or laundry detergent. But that doesn’t make ill-fated campaigns like Zara’s, Balenciaga’s or Dolce & Gabbana’s unavoidable. Rather, brands that ignite customers’ passions in a good way must also internalise all the ways that approach can go wrong. In today’s environment, where opinions can go viral with a few taps of a phone screen, they don’t have a choice.

The best protection would be to bake sensitivity checks into the approval process. This may not be well received in creative circles, conjuring up fears of censorship boards and ultra-safe, cookie-cutter campaigns. They might note how fashion campaigns have helped nudge sexual liberation, LGBTQ rights and racial justice into the mainstream (and generated billions of dollars in sales) through campaigns that could easily have been nixed by prudish executives, or kept in a drawer by self-censoring creative directors.

But done right, sensitivity checks can be part of the creative process, rather than an impediment, a way to strike the precise balance between conversation-starting and controversy-causing. They involve building a step later in the process to gauge whether or not a campaign could be perceived as potentially offensive to a variety of religious, ethnic or racial backgrounds, as well as LGBTQ people, or how it would land in the current political and social landscape. Many brands and organisations follow a version of this approach, either by formally appointing someone to give content a once-over, or by prioritising the development of an internal culture that keeps such concerns front of mind for all employees. Or both.

It’s important to remember that while strong creative ideas are key to creating impactful fashion campaigns, their ultimate goal is to promote a brand and its products. If a campaign alienates a significant portion of a brand’s customers, then it has failed, with the potential for long-term ramifications. Balenciaga’s sales have not rebounded in key markets including the United States, while more than five years later, Dolce & Gabbana is still struggling to find its footing in the key Chinese market.

For Zara, it’s too soon to know how significantly the online backlash will impact its bottom line. Parent company Inditex reported strong sales in the holiday season thus far on Tuesday, raising its margin outlook for the year. (In a call with executives, no analyst asked about the backlash to the campaign.)

THE NEWS IN BRIEF

FASHION, BUSINESS AND THE ECONOMY

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Macys
Arkhouse Management and Brigade Capital have made an offer to take department store chain Macy’s private. (Shutterstock)

Macy’s investors mount $5.8 million buyout bid. Arkhouse Management and Brigade Capital have made an offer to take department store chain Macy’s private. The offer for the Bloomingdale parent is $21 per share, a 20.76 percent premium from its closing at $17.39 last Friday.

Shein holds talks with London Stock Exchange on possible listing. Shein’s chairman Donald Tang met executives from the LSE and other stakeholders in the UK economy during a visit to London last week, according to a Sky News report.

Inditex’s nine-month profit soars 32.5 percent and sales growth slows down. The world’s biggest fashion retailer said its net profit rose to €4.1 billion ($4.42 billion) in line with analysts, most of whom are still betting on the company’s ability to draw more aspirational shoppers.

H&M sales drop as consumer demand for fast fashion wavers. Sales fell 4 percent in the three months through November at constant currencies, the company said Friday, in line with analysts’ expectations. H&M shares were little changed in Stockholm.

Etsy shares dive after e-commerce company cuts workforce. The e-commerce platform announced it would slash 11 percent of its workforce as it seeks to cut costs, pressured by weakening demand for handcrafted goods. The company’s shares, down 32 percent year-to-date, fell to as low as $78.54 after the announcement.

Moody’s downgrades Farfetch’s credit rating amid cash troubles. The e-commerce retailer was downgraded to junk territory, and was put on review for another downgrade. Farfetch’s share price has fallen to less than $1, a potential hurdle for the company to raise money to keep operating.

Breitling buys watchmaker Universal Genève in first major deal. Buying Universal Genève is an attempt to revive a brand that has faded since its heyday decades ago. The first watches could come to market by 2026 and will be priced well above Breitling’s average price of about 6,700 Swiss francs ($7,640).

COP28 ends with a deal on transition away from fossil fuels. The agreement was strong enough for the US and European Union on the need to dramatically curb fossil fuel use while keeping Saudi Arabia and other oil producers on board. The agreement calls for countries to quickly shift energy systems away from fossil fuels in a just and orderly fashion, qualifications that helped convince the sceptics.

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Temu files a new lawsuit against rival Shein. In the suit, the e-commerce platform alleges that Shein employed “Mafia-style intimidation” to coerce Temu’s suppliers. It also claimed Shein “falsely imprisoned” vendors who dealt with Temu by detaining merchant representatives in Shein’s offices for many hours.

LVMH cedes control of cruise retail to Florida developer Jim Gissy. LVMH will remain an “important minority shareholder” in the new entity, the luxury group said on Friday. The deal is expected to be concluded shortly. Financial details were not provided.

Li Ning plunges on $282 million HK property bet. Li Ning Co Ltd. shares tumbled on Monday as investors disapproved of the Chinese sportswear maker’s plan to buy a commercial building in Hong Kong, with some analysts saying the move was not the best use of capital.

US retail sales unexpectedly rise in a solid start to holidays. The rebound in retail sales reported by the Commerce Department on Thursday underscored consumers’ resilience thanks to a strong labour market.

Puma to end sponsorship of Israel’s football federation. The brand said it took the decision last year as part of a strategy to streamline its partnerships and that it was unrelated to the war in Gaza.

Luxury slowdown prompts fears of inventory pile-up over key holiday season. Early holiday shopping season discounts from high-end fashion retailers raised concern that a lacklustre Christmas could lead to inventory gluts – potentially dragging labels into a discounting spiral that would cheapen their image.

Used Rolex prices seen benefiting from rate cuts. Prices for second-hand luxury watches tumbled as the US Federal Reserve raised interest rates. The transaction value is now at its lowest level in more than two years, following a surge that peaked in early 2022.

EU agrees on forced labour and environmental harm disclosures for companies. Large companies in the European Union will have to identify and take remedial action if they find their supply chains employing child labour or damaging the environment, the bloc’s lawmakers and council of member states agreed on Thursday.

THE BUSINESS OF BEAUTY

Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. has begun a strategic review of its Boots drugstore business, chief executive officer Rosalind Brewer said.
Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. is reviving discussions on a potential exit from its UK drugstore chain Boots, reports Bloomberg. (Shutterstock)

Boots owner in talks to offload £7 billion UK pharmacy chain. Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. is reviving discussions on a potential exit from its UK drugstore chain Boots, according to people with knowledge of the matter, reports Bloomberg, nearly 18 months after a sale process was scrapped. A Boots stock offering would be a big boost to the London stock market, which has been hit by a steady flow of companies opting to list elsewhere.

Unilever Ventures doubles down on Australian hair care brand Straand. Melbourne-based hair care line Straand has raised 4 million Australian dollars ($2.62 million) in a seed round backed by Unilever Ventures. The corporate venture capital arm of Unilever had previously invested in a pre-seed round earlier this year.

Coty inks new distributor agreement. The company has also signed a partnership with local distribution and marketing firm House of Beauty. Rizman Mulla, formerly at the Chalhoub Group, has been appointed as business development director in India.

Unilever named in UK greenwashing investigation. The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) said Unilever may be overstating how green certain products are through the use of vague and broad claims, unclear statements around recyclability, and natural-looking images and logos. The CMA inquiry forms part of its wider investigation into greenwashing.

JVN hair sold at auction. The brand, founded by celebrity hairstylist and personality Jonathan Van Ness, is the latest by sell-off from now-bankrupt beauty-and-biotech company Amryris. It was purchased by the consumer investment firm Windsong Global on Dece. 13 for $1.25 million.

PEOPLE

Laurent Malecaze, currently chief executive of British menswear label Dunhill, will replace Riccardo Bellini, as CEO of Chloe.
Laurent Malecaze, currently chief executive of British menswear label Dunhill, will replace Riccardo Bellini, as CEO of Chloé. (Chloé)

Chloé hires new CEO. Laurent Malecaze, currently chief executive of British menswear label Dunhill, will replace Riccardo Bellini, who is set to exit Chloé at the end of the year.

Revolution Beauty CFO to step down. Elizabeth Lake will exit the company Dec. 31, the British beauty company said. Former Boohoo Group CFO Neil Catto will step into the role in January 2024.

Rolex reseller Chrono24 taps Zalando executive as CEO. The online reseller of luxury watches named Carsten Keller as its new chief executive officer. The move marks a significant changing of the guard at the Karlsruhe, Germany-based company, which has been valued at more than $1 billion and had previously considered a public share listing.

MEDIA AND TECHNOLOGY

The Independents is continuing its M&A spree.
The Independents is continuing its M&A spree. (Courtesy)

The Independents strengthens events capabilities with two new acquisitions. The communications giant has acquired two production agencies, Atelier Lum and INCA Productions, bolstering its expertise and reach within the experiential sector. The terms of the deals were not disclosed.

Another Man’ to relaunch as bi-annual print magazine. The menswear-focussed offshoot of Dazed Media co-founder and CEO Jefferson Hack’s Another publication will return in April 2024 as a bi-annual print magazine. Another Man plans to release its 2024 editions in April and October, with a run of 10,000 copies per edition.

Billionaire JD founder channels Jack Ma in call for change. Richard Liu urged staff to address deep-seated issues within his e-commerce company, in an internal memo that echoed a call to arms issued by Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. founder Jack Ma last month.

Compiled by Yola Mzizi.

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