Chaotic consequences: H&M store after being vandalised by the EFF. Picture: Gallo Images/Netwerk24 /Deon Raath
Chaotic consequences: H&M store after being vandalised by the EFF. Picture: Gallo Images/Netwerk24 /Deon Raath

Leading SA advertising practitioners say many brands remain insensitive to racial issues and there is a lack of understanding of the "lived" experience of black people.

This comes after global clothing retailer H&M posted an online promotional image of a black child wearing a hoodie with the words "Coolest monkey in the jungle".

The image has led to international outrage. Locally, supporters of Julius Malema’s EFF stormed H&M outlets in Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town, trashing the stores in protest. The Swedish retailer has since apologised but is fighting a rearguard campaign to salvage its reputation.

Thabang Skwambane, head of the FCB Johannesburg ad agency, cautions brands not to assume or accept references from inappropriate sources to guide their thinking and work. "If you are not black you do not know what the black experience of the world is." Brands need to employ more black people at all levels who can inform this ethos and thinking, and above all need to listen to "unseen people" who make lives easier, such as the cleaner and the tea lady.

Monalisa Zwambila, CEO of the Riverbed agency, says what is more disconcerting about the issue is that without a huge public outcry H&M would have deemed the image acceptable. "This debacle is an example that sensitivity to black issues isn’t something that can be taught but is innately embedded within the fabric of all black people." Therefore "diversity is critical for brands that seek to connect with their consumers in a meaningful way". Brands also have "to be cognisant of not only the racial context in which they exist, but the social context that has for the first time given black people a voice and enabled them to have strong opinions about advertising that they deem doesn’t speak to them... Consumers expect brands to understand them and they can only do that if they have a team of people who closely mirror their target audience."

Ivan Moroke, head of the Co-Currency agency, says brands need to place diversity at the centre of the strategy. "Follow-up apologies are not enough and time is up for conversations around this issue."

Ivan Johnson, creative lead and partner at the 3Verse agency, believes H&M was "stupid, ignorant and sloppy" and that its global scale is partly to blame. He says "petty checkpoints masquerade as diligence" and because of the size of marketing departments in large organisations, no-one takes final responsibility.

Skwambane says brands need to create internal platforms "to openly criticise people in positions of power to challenge their manner; and allow black people to voice their opinion, dissent and unhappiness". He also believes more brands need to insist on black people producing their work "because they can represent the work as an experience for the consumer in a way that is authentic".

Zwambila says H&M will have to work hard to recover its reputation in the black community. "The authenticity of brands is what people buy into. They want to see how brand values are aligned to their own. As such, recovery from something like this cannot be done for its own sake. Ideas that are campaign-driven, like donating the hoodies to charity, are gimmicky."

Johnson says any recovery strategy needs to be honest: "Keep it short and say you’re sorry."

Skwambane believes the H&M outcry should serve as a wake-up call for all SA brands. "I don’t believe brands and their people... have done the work, are willing to listen or to give up their opinion to be informed by other diverse perspectives, especially from black people, because of their superiority complex developed over years of institutionalised and legislated racism."

Jeremy Maggs

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