Last year, I wrote about Kendall’s Pepsi advert. I commented on how I believe that it was deliberate marketing tactic on Pepsi’s behalf, dependent on invoking rightful backlash from the black community. Events over the last couple of days have only reaffirmed this for me.
H&M have come under fire for dressing a black boy in a hoodie that reads ‘coolest monkey in the jungle’, with the photograph used in the children’s section of their website. The comparisons made between black people and monkeys are neither new nor surprising – it is an experience that many black people can attest to, ranging from young children in school to people in the public eye. For the teams involved in the photo-shoot and online content to have missed these loaded connotations is simply too much of an oversight, especially as this is the latest in a long list of tone-deaf and insensitive advertising, joining the leagues of Dove and Nivea as another brand that has missed the mark.
But is it really possible for so many brands to making such big mistakes? Considering that each campaign sparks a thousand think pieces and news reports around the ire they spur, how are these faux pas still able to take place? Senior lecturer Kelly O’Hanlon notes that while some feel the public is always looking for the next big thing to be offended by: “whether you are offended or not, the fact remains that in 2018, following on from many examples in the not so distant past of racial insensitive choices in the world of promotion, brands should be sensitive to such loaded phrases and how they approach representation and diversity.” However, are we giving these brands the benefit of the doubt, explaining it away with insensitivity? Is it truly inconceivable to some that these marketing teams may actually be doing it on purpose? What has become abundantly clear is that black rage is free publicity.
Too little, too late. We are so tired of the casual racism. You all know better, but you don’t want to be better coz you use black outrage is a marketing tool. https://t.co/XVSwLcWIlm
— Black Ballad (@BlackBalladUK) January 8, 2018
The cycle seems to consist of the following: brand displays offensive material, online community responds with anger, disbelief and calls for boycott of brand, brand takes down offensive material and releases vapid statement using phrases like “we deeply regret”, “does not reflect our core beliefs” and “we are committed to representing diversity”, rage cools off, calls for boycotts are forgotten, business as usual for the brand.
This doesn’t mean that call out culture is ineffective or futile. Holding brands, outlets, and individuals accountable is necessary in order to effect positive change and growth.
“Calling people out works but we must differentiate between when we are dealing with a lack of understanding, and when we are being intentionally baited”
Emma Watson, who has long been criticised by many as the embodiment of white feminism, recently chose Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge as her feminist book club’s first book of 2018. Alongside the announcement, she states “when I heard myself being called a ‘white feminist’ I didn’t understand (I suppose I proved their case in point).” She goes on to say “it would have been more useful to spend the time asking myself question like: What are the ways I have benefited from being white? In what ways do I support and uphold a system that is structurally racist? How do my race, class and gender affect my perspective?” Her recent efforts do not suddenly make her the most powerful intersectional feminist, a title that many rush to crown white women for doing the bare minimum. However, they do suggest that she is taking steps in the right direction – all due to valid criticisms that she herself acknowledges.
Calling people out works but we must differentiate between when we are dealing with a lack of understanding, and when we are being intentionally baited.
Whose idea was it at @hm to have this little sweet black boy wear a jumper that says ‘coolest monkey in the jungle’?
I mean. What. pic.twitter.com/6AJfMdQS4L
— Stephanie Yeboah (@NerdAboutTown) January 7, 2018
It appears that for many of these brands, all press is good press. H&M have, as expected, taken the image down and issued an apology due to influencers voicing their disgust and The Weeknd announcing that he would not be working with the brand again. While we should consider the removal of the picture a victory, we also have to ask at what cost? Style blogger Stephanie Yeboah tweeted: “As somebody who has been called a monkey many times by white people (both to my face and online), this is absolutely unacceptable.” A quick scroll through Stephanie’s mentions reveals the height of abuse and trolling she is experiencing for daring to call out racism.
— The Weeknd (@theweeknd) January 8, 2018
Writer Siana Bangura says on Instagram: “As much as we must keep being angry and using that as fuel for action, I’m really trying to use my energy productively this year – if I don’t I will run out of energy completely because the frequency of this type of racism and racist representation is, if anything, increasing.”
This is not to say ignore these events. It’s a call for weighing up the costs for yourself. A call for thinking about if you would be better served by expending that same energy elsewhere. A call for pausing to breathe and taking a time out from a world where our blackness is constantly under assault. It’s acknowledging that these are deliberate and calculated marketing ploys, where such online buzz will have these companies trending worldwide. It’s knowing that while Stephanie has bravely used her voice and platform in the face of direct and unrelenting racism, I might not be able to withstand that same pressure – is there some way to take this negativity and churn out something positive?
“It’s acknowledging that these are deliberate and calculated marketing ploys, where such online buzz will have these companies trending worldwide”
Sometimes, that might be possible. Many are already taking this advert and creating art – as Bangura puts it, they are re-imagining this black child. But it’s also okay if it doesn’t inspire any kind of masterpiece or powerful reflection. It’s understandable if, actually, this makes your head hurt and you’re not able to take this one on. It’s alright if today, you don’t feel justifying your humanity. You may instead choose to stay off social media, watch terrible TV or work on something completely unrelated.
One thing I know for certain is that I refuse to line your pockets with my outrage.
I’ve learnt that these people make money off my Black rage. They absolutely weigh up the pros and cons of racist advertising then decide bad press is just as great as good press. As much as we must keep being angry and using that as fuel for action, I’m really trying to use my energy productively this year – if I don’t I will run out of energy completely because the frequency of this type of racism and racist representation is, if anything, increasing. We barely have time to breathe before the next attack on our humanity. I’m trying new approaches and re-imagining as part of my practice. Thank you to @akomicsart for re-imagining this beautiful black child from the nasty context we discovered him in today. When he is older I hope he sees this. 👑