H&M Kids Sweater Campaign; What Went Wrong?

Social media has gone wild following a kids sweater campaign by H&M clothing brand, that launched in the United Kingdom. The problem; a black boy, pictured wearing a green sweater with the words; “Coolest Monkey In The Jungle” printed across the front.

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Critics are calling this a racist and insensitive quote, because of the connotations behind the word “monkey in the jungle” worn by a black model.

As a result of the backlash, H&M lost a celebrity partner; musician The WeekndOn January 7, 2018, the Canadian singer whose real name is Abel Tesfaye,  tweeted; “woke up this morning shocked and embarrassed by this photo. i’m deeply offended and will not be working with @hm anymore…”


H&M issued this statement to The Washington Post; “We understand that many people are upset about the image. We, who work at H&M, can only agree. We are deeply sorry that the picture was taken, and we also regret the actual print. Therefore, we have not only removed the image from our channels, but also the garment from our product offering globally.”

However, for many consumers, the apology isn’t enough. What were they thinking? Was this a publicity stunt or an innocent mistake? Did a focus group test this campaign before the images were launched? Was there even a focus group? If so, was it racially diverse? Did the model’s parents approve the shoot? There are so many puzzling questions about this campaign, and many are calling for a total boycott of the H&M brand. Let’s attempt to dissect the issue(s);

  1. The phrase “monkey in the jungle”; On a black model, this should have raised many red flags for everyone involved – photographers, the model’s parents or guardians, H&M’s PR team, the campaign supervisors, the list is endless. It’s 2018 and we live in very charged times. Someone should have known that this wouldn’t sit right with consumers. It’s common sense at the very least.
  2. Focus groups or campaign monitors; There must have been a team responsible for making sure that this campaign was suitable for public release. H&M is a large clothing company so it’s not unreasonable to expect that such resources were indeed available. Going on this expectation, one wonders who the team consisted of. Did the focus group consist of caucasians or was it a diverse group including people from different races? The fact that this hoodie was advertised as such brings me to a few possible explanations;
    1.  H&M genuinely did not see an issue with this image (I sincerely doubt this).
    2. There was no focus group to test this campaign (highly unlikely).
    3. There was a team which did not include any people of colour (likely).
    4. Someone saw the problem, but was too afraid to speak up (highly likely).
  3. Publicity stunt?; I cannot wrap my head around the idea that this was a mistake. Was it? Really? Or was there an ulterior motive? It doesn’t seem logical that in 2018, a large company like H&M would be this clueless about such obvious racial triggers. The boldness of it seems intentional, which leads me to think that H&M needed eyes on their company. Think about it; many upset people will flock to websites, where they will find several sales and discounts as H&M’s way of fixing the their mistake. Think of the millions of people who might not see the issue with this campaign or even relate to it, and will therefore flock to the store to benefit from whatever perks result from damage control.
  4. The impact; I don’t imagine that this is a comfortable time for the young black boy in this campaign, who is – in my opinion, not mature enough to deal with such grand public scrutiny. Granted, the backlash is mainly in his favor. What happens, however, when the public is not looking so closely? I hope his parents/guardians teach him a strong sense of identity and boldness to help him navigate the fashion industry, which can often times be harsh, especially at a such a young and impressionable age.
  5. The pattern; This too will pass, just like the Pepsi and Dove controversies. An apology here, a reparation sale there, and soon this will be history. There’s no real sanction besides angry consumers and possible bad ratings. I say this not to undermine the impact that disgruntled customers can have on a company of that magnitude. However, it would be naive not to consider the possibility that such publicity could work in H&M’s favor. Pepsi’s sales shot up only a few weeks after the Kylie Jenner ad debacle.

What do you think about the situation? What was your initial reaction to the image? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

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