Most of the world did a collective side-eye at the nerve, the gall, of H&M to feature a campaign in which a little black boy had the words “monkey” and “jungle” prominently displayed across his chest. Like most people, I was nauseated at the image, but I do not want to focus on it. I want to forget the outrage of the moment and take an honest and truthful look at the issue on display: a lack of diversity in creative fields. This is not an American problem, this is a global problem, as H&M proved.
That is not to say that there are no diverse candidates in the creative industry; on the contrary, one need only take a quick glance through black Twitter, Creators of Color, AdColor, Blavity’s Creative Society or any number of sources available, to find creators of color who are ready, waiting and willing to do the work required to help these brands stop making colossal mistakes. Yet, despite all the resources, African-Americans continue to make up less than five percent of professionals in advertising, and less than three percent of that number is on the executive and managerial side — at least that was the number as of 2008. What is the number now? I could not find any metrics, but as someone who has routinely been one of only a few in the room during creative strategies, I doubt that number has dramatically changed.
As a creative brand strategist who often worked the hallowed halls of larger brands in the industry prior to starting my own company, I have a keen insight on precisely how these types of conversations go. There was a pitch process, editing, sourcing of the agency, approval by the art director, website team and brand team. There were few objections to the image because there was less than a five percent chance that someone, who was in the target demographic on any of these teams, had intimate knowledge of just how controversial and triggering that image would be for all those who looked like the boy in the image. And there was less than a three percent chance that anyone with the power to approve would actually veto the image.
Which brings me to my final points: I do not believe H&M’s rushed apology.
To believe it would mean I am also willing to completely suspend my belief in reality, and pretend that H&M, a global brand, with analysts and strategists at its disposal, does not know who it’s demographic is or how its brand might be interpreted. Their increasing usage of black celebrities to sell the brand lends itself to the belief that the brand has an intimate knowledge of just who buys the brand — or at least who they want to buy it.
So, to me, someone with intimate knowledge of this process, the brand’s subsequent apology seems stale. In a world where eyes are on America’s continuing dissent into the twilight zone, it’s (mis)treatment of minorities and #BlackLivesMatter, trending almost monthly, this “slip” seems almost planned. But this is not a race issue, regardless of how it may seem; this is a disconnection issue, and that’s worse, much worse, as the call for diverse storytelling and imagery gets louder every day.
H&M’s mistake, and Pepsi’s last year, proves that diversifying areas of impact within the creative advertising industry are not being addressed at the pace that it should be. Otherwise, we would not have to keep having this conversation and subjected to the nauseating effects of brands failing again and again.
So, what’s the solution beyond diversifying the agency and organizations at the highest level? I’m not sure, but I believe it must start now. We, the people, must begin to #ThinkLocalGrowGlobal. Since our dollar has weight and merit, we must utilize the tools at our disposal, like The Official Black Wallstreet App, to identify black-owned brands in our local markets, and give them our dollars, to help them grow globally. We use Instagram and Twitter to find creatives of color (like Mess in a Bottle in Chicago and Debonair District in Tampa) making dynamic statements with fashion, and giving them our dollars to help them grow globally. We, the people, continue to demand authenticity in representation, and we do it by intentionally supporting the brands, companies and creatives who support us.
For us by us.