The H&M controversy surrounding a picture on its website showing a black boy modelling a hoodie that reads ‘Coolest Monkey in the Jungle’ went viral this week, says The Week.
The Weeknd, who recently collaborated with the Swedish retailer has since cut ties saying this on Twitter:
The Huffington Post reports that local celebrities like Somizi Mhlongo, Cassper Nyovest and Lerato Kganyago have also taken to Twitter and Instagram, threatening to boycott H&M in South Africa.
H&M has since apologised for the picture, telling AFP “The image has now been removed from all H&M channels and we apologise to anyone this may have offended."
H&M is not the only major company to be hit by an advertisement scandal in recent years. Think back to Chinese brand Qiaobi's racist laundry ad, Nivea’s underarm spray ad, Kendall Jenner’s offensive Pepsi ad and 2014 when Zara removed striped pyjamas with a yellow star after facing outrage over its resemblance to clothes worn by Jewish prisoners in concentration camps.
Last year Dove also apologised after it was accused of racism for airing a commercial showing a black woman turning into a white woman after removing her top. And we have been let down many times over by some local retailers, yet continue to shop their tempting aisles.
Do we actually boycott brands?
We ran a quick poll on Twitter asking our readers whether they do.
Have you ever really boycotted brands after they've done something you didn't agree with?— W24.co.za (@W24_SA) January 9, 2018
Only about a quarter said yes.
According to an article published in Campaignlive.co.uk a YouGov study had similarly low figures - 'only 21% of consumers have boycotted a brand as a result of a scandal or negative press'. Interestingly it also revealed that 'the majority of these said they never went back.'
So, does threatening a boycott even mean anything? Does it make us feel that by channelling our money elsewhere that we’re taking back some control? Is it a quick tool to show we don’t approve of the offending company or person as an entity? Is it ever effective?
The Guardian asked the same question in an article called 'Do boycotts really work?'. It seems a grassroots campaign, particularly when it's just a few threatening voices on social media might get a company to pull an ad but while they 'are useful for expressing displeasure, they aren’t all that successful when it comes to changing a company’s policies'.
It's important to hold people accountable when they make a mistake but the trend of outrage politics means that it all usually blows over in a few days, leaving some of us with empty 140-character strong promises.
It seems almost enough to threaten boycott, to agitate for change but I think we also don't follow through because we feel it won't actually change anything (will they really feel the pinch if I take my rands somewhere else?) and it's just too inconvenient to change our habits.
Whether we do or don't threaten to and follow up on boycotting, perhaps it would be in a company's best interests to be more transparent about decision-making and how they plan on making sure they don't repeat similar mistakes in the future in a way that doesn't just feel like a generic PR response. And if they can't lay all their cards on the table, what about working behind the scenes to avoid these scenarios?
We've long been saying that changes need to be made to prevent these types of failures. Stylist and former ad agency employee Bee Diamondhead tweeted the following:
This to me is the real issue here. I don’t think anyone in that room saw anything wrong with putting that sweatshirt on that boy. I remember walking into a project late as the stylist, and the team had decided to shoot a black Model in front of a monkey graffiti wall... https://t.co/jHoWp3O2gK— ??BEE DIAMONDHEAD?? (@BEEDIAMONDHEAD) January 10, 2018
We asked her about her 13 years of experience working with ad agencies, and this is what she had to say:
"The problem is much bigger and deeper than the industry is ready to address. Only one demographic is represented at the table. As long as the core doesn’t change this will continue to happen. Ad agencies need to consciously remember to include and hire the demographics they’re speaking to or addressing.