H&M, the Swedish fast-fashion retailer, suffered a major public relations crisis last week when an advertisement depicting a black child modeling a sweatshirt with the slogan “coolest monkey in the jungle” set off a wave of violent protests at its stores in South Africa. The company quickly apologized and removed the ad from all its marketing, but the fallout has not ended: Musicians The Weeknd and G-Eazy have canceled partnerships with the company, activists have called for a global boycott, and the five-year-old model, Liam Mango, and his family have reportedly moved out of their home in Stockholm over “security concerns” after his mother was harshly criticized for defending the company over the controversy.
As part of its damage-control efforts, H&M announced on Wednesday that it had hired its first global head of diversity, the Associated Press reported:
In an email to The Associated Press on Wednesday, the retailer said Global Manager for Employee Relations Annie Wu, a company veteran, would be the new global leader for diversity and inclusiveness. The retailer said on Facebook that it’s “commitment to addressing diversity and inclusiveness is genuine, therefore we have appointed a global leader, in this area, to drive our work forward.”
At Quartz, Lynsey Chutel explains why the ad touched such a nerve in South Africa, and what other global brands can learn from this controversy:
H&M learned the hard way that an apology was not enough in South Africa, a country where race-based controversies often hog the headlines. South Africa’s fraught, but brutally honest and very public conversations on race offer a lesson to global brands on the importance of diversity. Increasingly across the continent, consumers are teaching brands that diversity matters, as Nivea had to learn in Ghana last year.
H&M creatives baffled by why associating a black boy with a monkey is considered racism should have looked into the case of Penny Sparrow, a South African woman whose Facebook post calling black people monkeys resulted in national uproar, court proceedings and a fine. Along with a discussion around legislating racism, the incident also displayed that simianization as a racist slur against black people is still such a painful topic.