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Op-Ed | H&M’s Monkey Ad: Racist, Tone Deaf or Just Plain Stupid?

Large companies can't afford to be tone deaf or culturally naïve in a global and digitally connected world, argues Jette Kristiansen.  
H&M offended shoppers when a children’s hoodie emblazoned with the phrase “coolest monkey in the jungle” was modelled in marketing materials by a young black boy | Source: Courtesy
  • Jette Kristiansen

STOCKHOLM, Sweden — "How stupid can they be?" were the exact words uttered by both my South African and Scandinavian friends this month as the H&M debacle unfolded. But that's where the commonality in their response stops. While most South Africans felt that it was the Swedish clothing giant, with its apparent lack of concern for racially loaded language, who was "stupid," Scandinavian friends found that although the ad might have been both naive and embarrassing, it would be "stupid" to think that the ad was intentionally racist. Nobody would alienate a large part of their consumer base on purpose, being the crass economic logic to their argument.

The disconnect is obvious. When you follow the coverage of the H&M story in Scandinavia, you quickly find out that a large part of society is struggling to get to grips with the criticism from South Africa. As a mainly white, middle class but also profoundly egalitarian society, Danes and Swedes have huge problems grasping what it feels like to live as a black person in a fundamentally unequal society.

One Danish cultural sociologist who was called upon to explain what the criticism was all about, was quoted time and again in local media this week saying that "it is understandable that people get upset, because 100 to 150 years ago, some people compared black people to monkeys."

I am pretty sure that she thinks she is siding with H&M's critics. She probably also had fresh in mind a recent exhibition at the Danish National Museum, which focused on Denmark's role in the slave trade and the Danish Queen's heartfelt apology to Ghana only a few weeks ago. But by only explaining the situation in a historical context, she is also indicating that the debate is without huge amounts of relevance today.

It doesn't take much international awareness to find out that monkey-chanting is part of many people's personal and painful experience today

In a nation where most people own their own home, nobody crosses the street on a red light and the most dangerous predator is a hedgehog, it is as comfortable to keep that distance as it is naive. But even my 11-year-old son, who watches a lot of soccer on TV, can tell you that monkey chanting happens on pitches all over Europe. In some parts, very close to the Scandinavian borders, there are fans who throw bananas on the pitch when black players step onto the grass. And I would argue that if it happens on TV, chances are it happens in the schoolyard and on social media, also in Scandinavia.

It doesn't take much lateral thinking or international awareness to find out that monkey-chanting is part of many people's personal and painful experience today. Even Barack Obama experienced it when he found himself caricatured as an ape in the Belgian newspaper De Morgen in 2014.

Another Danish editorial in the small leftist newspaper Information argued that putting a hoodie with a monkey slogan on a black boy was not racist; it was, in fact, the people who made that connection who were racist. In a South African context, such reasoning is almost dizzying: To claim that it is not H&M but, in fact, their critics who are racist would seem absurd from a South African or African-American perspective.

You could argue that both the cultural sociologist and the author of the editorial are correct in theory, but only in a very intellectual sense. In Scandinavia, where everybody gets an excellent and free education, debating at an intellectual level is normal, whereas debating at an emotional level is frowned upon.

I am by no means saying that all Scandinavians are intellectual and all South Africans are emotional — there are intellectuals everywhere and we all have emotions. But my point is that people communicate on different frequencies, and if a company like H&M wants to communicate better with its customers and understand how they think, there has to be a sense of connection. A purely intellectual understanding of a problem may very well be correct and pragmatic, but in the complex real world it is useless.

I personally agree with the black American hip-hop artist and radio show host Charlamagne tha God, who last week argued that he didn't believe that the photo was deliberately racist, but that H&M had exposed itself as being "profoundly tone deaf." Ironically, I think H&M probably even thought they were being inclusive, as they made a special effort to find non-white children for their ad.

In the 90s and 00s, advertisers were selling dreams. Today, customers want respect.

In the '80s, the advertising mantra was "sex sells." Calvin Klein was one of the most prominent proponents for that philosophy. Recently, we have seen how that led to widespread sexual abuse in the fashion industry. In the '90s and '00s, advertisers were selling dreams. Today's customers want respect. I would go as far as saying that in many places, respect is their dream.

Big companies can't afford to be tone deaf or culturally naive. They need to invest in soft values and unconventional kinds of expertise, in order to understand the daily lives and cultural values of their entire customer base and to be able to communicate that respect.

If an organisation keeps using advertising executives and communication advisers from the same social background as themselves, then they will automatically keep making the same mistakes. This is true for a political party as well as an international company.

If I am absolutely honest, whenever I have been successful with communicating across cultural differences, it has never been a matter of intelligence or winning a debate. It has always been about winning trust.

At its core, it is all about finding a connection between two parties, who are both willing to risk a personal conversation.

The word in the industry is that H&M now has to invest huge amounts in an enormous campaign to change perceptions — and they will only have one chance to get it right. My point is that they can do a lot that is almost free in comparison: Start with communicating at a human level instead of a corporate level.

Our digital reality is — in many ways — amazing. It has given us opportunities and access to information at a speed that we couldn't have imagined ten or 20 years ago. But ironically, it has also made us a bit more stupid. Much of our information is now extremely superficial and we don't have the time to truly think about the consequences of what we do.

But for companies like H&M, this is no excuse.

Jette Kristiansen is a Cape Town-based guest lecturer in Intercultural Communication at the University of Sout hern Jutland, Denmark. She also works as a consultant for both the private and the NGO sector.

The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.

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