Businesses can easily court controversy without meaning to do so, as growing backlash against fashion retailer H&M over a “racist” image demonstrates.
The company was forced to issue an apology in South Africa after publishing an advertisement that many took to be highly racist, which if nothing else demonstrated a clear lack of situational awareness.
In the ad, a young black child is pictured wearing a hoodie with the slogan “Coolest monkey in the jungle”.
Protesters slammed the Sweden-headquartered retailer, trashing several stores and savaging the company on social media – with images of the chaos making headlines around the world, including here in Australia.
H&M issued an apology soon after it was made aware of the problem, admitting it had failed to meet its own “high” standards.
“To all customers, staff, media, stakeholders, partners, suppliers, friends and critics. We would like to put on record our position in relation to the image and promotion of a children’s sweater, and the ensuing response and criticism. Our position is simple and unequivocal – we have got this wrong and we are deeply sorry,” the company said.
“We agree with all the criticism that this has generated – we have got this wrong and we agree that, even if unintentional, passive or casual racism needs to be eradicated wherever it exists. We appreciate the support of those who have seen that our product and promotion were not intended to cause offence but, as a global brand, we have a responsibility to be aware of and attuned to all racial and cultural sensitivities – and we have not lived up to this responsibility this time.”
H&M said it had removed the offending image and pulled the garment from sale, with all garments carrying the slogan to be “recycled”.
However that failed to quell public anger, with several South African stores being vandalised. That forced the retailer to temporarily close its stores nationwide for the “safety of our employees and customers”, with no indication of when they might resume trading.
“We strongly believe that racism and bias in any shape or form, deliberate or accidental, are simply unacceptable. We stress that our wonderful store staff had nothing to do with our poorly judged product and image,” the company said.
Following the PR storm, other customers around the world have also accused H&M staff of racist actions, suggesting the retailer may have a long way still to go to restore goodwill.
“So you've canned the ‘monkey’ branding... the racism doesn't stop there though does it,” Facebook user Matthew Ritchie wrote on the retailer’s Australian Facebook page.
“I went to your store in Melbourne and when I approached a member of the sales team and asked question about the suits/blazers and coats, the staff member looked me up and down twice and pointed toward an area and said ‘casual clothing is over there’... talk about judging a book by [its] cover.
“Not one person asked if I needed any help either… not even by the a staff member who followed me around making sure I didn't take anything....nice work guys… [I] won't be stepping into an H&M store again.”
Adam Zuchetti is the editor of My Business, and has steered the publication’s editorial direction since early 2016.