“Have you lost your damn minds?”
That’s what The New York Times columnist Charles Blow asked H&M after the brand became the latest case study in racially insensitive marketing.
H&M’s product listing featured a young black child wearing a sweatshirts that read, “Coolest monkey in the jungle.” Before that, Unilever’s Dove ran an ad including a black woman who had been “cleaned up” to have white skin. A Nivea ad—which also ran last year—promoted a face cream that offered “visibly lighter skin” for black women. Gap and vegan brand Tarte Cosmetics also ran ads that proved problematic for minority audiences.
Yet such brands seem to face no significant short-term business repercussions. It’s not like their sales just fall off a cliff.
While the initial reaction is to question whether these brands have lost their damn minds, the bigger issue is whether these decisions were all made with sound minds in the first place. We aren’t dealing with start-ups that lack the experience, time, or discipline needed to facilitate best practices.
If the decision-makers are not crazy, then we must ponder if this insensitivity is deliberate. In this age of hot takes and attention-driven controversy, I, for one, wonder whether these marketers somehow write it all off as a case of all press being good press.
With each of these branding faux pas, there is plausible deniability. Someone loses their job, an apology is made, and after a week (or less) we move on.
If these acts are not deliberate PR stunts, then one must turn back to the industry’s ongoing struggles with diversity: Just 6.6% of those employed in the ad industry are black versus 12.7% of the U.S. population. Hispanics comprise only 10% of the industry versus 17.6% of the general population. And just 11% of the world’s creative directors are women. In many cases, there is clearly no one involved in the process who thinks to stop, assess the cultural impact of an idea and ask, “Do you realize how that might be interpreted?”
There’s no easy fix for this situation, but hiring a more diverse team at your ad agency is an absolute necessity. I know from experience that if you are the only African American on staff, you will often be asked to speak for every black person in the U.S. That means you go from being just another account guy to the voice of 37 million people. Black America is not a homogeneous population; no cultural group on earth is.
You can’t say, “Stan saw it, so it’s okay,” and assume that it’s been vetted. That’s not how life or advertising works.
What’s the Solution?
Start with championing holistic diversity initiatives and hiring practices that are sensitive to race, gender and class. By doing so, you create an environment that is not only diverse in demographics, but also in terms of perspectives and life experience. Such diversity allows for a healthy debate and the opportunity to learn from and educate one another.
Brands also have to take on the challenge of destroying toxic, pressure-filled environments that produce groupthink. We have to create a space where all viewpoints can be aired and valued equally. This includes listening to and discussing ideas that we don’t like and might even deem offensive, in an effort to learn, teach, and grow.
As creative professionals, honest and open dialogue is a must. That’s the only way we can create work that positively impacts our culture.