H&M’s downfall was social media

2018-01-28 06:01
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There is a new kid on the block. He is unguarded, uneducated and tells all your secrets. He has a loud mouth, a wide reach, many friends and, if he gets wind of your issues, no matter how confidential or discreet they are supposed to be, rest assured they will be on the other side of the world before you go to bed that night.

Let me explain: If, for instance, you are racist or maybe not racist (depending on which side of the fence you are) and label an African child “monkey”, this guy will tell his thousands of friends and followers, who will tell their friends and followers, who will then pass it on to their aunts and uncles. Soon enough, you have gone viral. Celebrities, politicians and superstars will be calling you all sorts of things while you scramble to explain what, at the time, seems indefensible. Worse still, you may end up having other people, who may or may not be so credible, trying to speak on your behalf.

And because you cannot control human behaviour, some will be so brazen as to come and vandalise your house or store because, of course, violence, to them, is the antidote to social problems. Mr SM, full name Social Media, is the most powerful, indiscreet news peddler on the planet right now.

On the other hand, Mr SM can be your friend. If your issues are nothing to be ashamed of, then he can make you a superstar.

I was recently asked for my professional opinion on the H&M advertisement, which seems to have succeeded in labelling the company as being full of monkey games – pardon the pun.

As a marketing and advertisement professional with over 25 years in the business, my initial take was that this is a serious advertising failure.

I cannot understand how this “creative work” passed all the checks and balances, which are meant to be gruelling in advertising campaigns to protect the client. I do not understand how an international company like H&M got themselves into such a mess.

I appreciate that advertising is subjective and there is perspective to everything. However, it remains your responsibility as the advertiser (usually through the agency) to do research and ensure that the creative work is not offensive. In this instance, H&M has failed horribly.

The usual checks and balances that accompany all creative briefs seem to have been completely overlooked.

I am tempted to say that this is a reflection of how untransformed the industry is, because surely an African agency, or one with senior Africans in key positions, would have sounded alarm bells.

I could be wrong. Perhaps H&M actually believes the message in their advert. This is not a new thing. There are many similar adverts that have come and gone unnoticed, mainly because, back then, we did not have social media. We will never know. What I do know is that this is a reflection of the lack of transformation in the advertising industry.

In the US, big brands like McDonald’s employ multiple agencies that specialise in different market segments. For instance, there is a population of over 55 million African Americans in the US. The company would employ a black agency to focus on this market.

It is quite natural that a black agency would understand the cultural and traditional dynamics of this segment, as opposed to an Asian agency like Dentsu, which is one of the largest advertising agencies in Asia and can do a better job with the Asian market. Advertising, by its nature, is complex. The various sectors require different approaches, almost tailor-made for each segment and with an appreciation of the intricate issues at play, be they racial, cultural, gender based or religious. As an advertiser, do not assume you know every market segment.

The other day, I listened with absolute horror as the CEO of AfriForum was at pains to explain that his white kids have T-shirts that refer to them as monkeys too. That’s okay, but never assume the same message will be received in the “correct” context by another race – especially in a country as diverse as South Africa and with the kind of historical background we have.

Nchabeleng is an award-winning entrepreneur and advertising guru, chairperson of Blueprint Group, Koni Multinational Brands and the United Royal Kingship Holdings

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