H&M Ad Sparks Ethical Debate in the Industry

H&M Ad Sparks Ethical Debate in the Industry

Social media recently blew up over H&M's controversial hoodie ad, which features a black boy modeling a sweatshirt stating "Coolest monkey in the jungle." Other sweatshirts from the same line, stating "Survival expert," were modeled by white children. Clearly the images of the young models are filled with racist undertones. But is it realistic to think that H&M didn't even think of a possible issue? How does this reflect the photographers who took the image? And why have we yet to learn from our mistakes in the industry?

It very well could be a possibility that the Swedish clothing company did not consider the potential repercussions of customers. Perhaps they weren't entirely aware of the way these images would be perceived by consumers halfway across the world. Either way, this decision cost them. Music artist The Weeknd, who has worked with the company in the past, cut ties after seeing the ad. “I'm shocked and embarrassed after seeing this photo,” he said. “I am deeply offended and will not be working with H&M anymore.”

It's difficult to fault one person in particular for this ad. At some point down the line, whether it be during the photography, postproduction, or publishing of the photo and ad, someone had to have realized it wasn't the best idea. In response to the criticism, H&M said Monday in a statement to the Washington Post:

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.

Relate this issue and the repercussions to similar content published in the past. Last year, Dove received extensive backlash after sharing an ad showing a black woman turning white after taking off her brown sweatshirt. A Dove soap bottle sits next to the woman.

Or consider this controversial laundry detergent ad published in China. It shows a Chinese woman stuffing a physically dirty black man into a washing machine while putting a detergent packet in his mouth. He then comes out a few moments later. But this time he isn't black, he is a sparkly-clean Chinese man.

This next one is unrelated to race, but again raises concern regarding publishing and taking sensitive photos. In December 2012, the New York Post's cover photo showed a man standing on subway tracks, with a train unbearably close. Beneath the man, large white text screams: "DOOMED." The Post faced heavy criticism for publishing the photo. The photographer, freelancer R. Umar Abbasi, also received criticism for taking the photo in the first place. He was questioned as to why he didn't help the man about to die.

The National Press Photographers' Code of Ethics states: “While photographing subjects do not intentionally contribute to, alter, or seek to alter or influence events.” Perhaps Abassi was following his moral obligation as a journalist, and this is why he didn't help the man on the train tracks.

Consider South African photojournalist's "Struggling Girl" image, for example. In 1993, Kevin Carter was photographing the famine that struck Sudan. He witnessed a girl resting, and watched as a vulture landed behind her. He waited 20 minutes for the bird to get closer to the girl in order to take the best image possible. He had yet to realize that he captured one of the most "controversial photographs in the history of photojournalism." Little did viewers know that immediately after clicking the shutter, Carter chased the vulture away. But he didn't help the girl. Like the vulture, he left the scene, too. However, Carter was a photojournalist in a time when it was common practice to not touch famine victims for fear of spreading disease. Still, could he have helped her in any other way? 

Carter obstructed the real-life event only after he took the image. Apparently, Abbasi attempted to help the man on the train tracks by firing off his flash to warn the operator. Obviously this didn't help. I could somewhat understand if Abbasi, in the heat of the moment, thought that he was simply capturing unobstructed real-life events, as a photojournalist ultimately should. But in the end, in this case, I truly believe Abbasi's moral obligation as a human to help other humans, outweighed his journalistic obligation of capturing the moment. 

The American Society of Media Photographers Member Code of Ethics states in its "Responsibility to Clients" section: 

Conduct oneself in a professional manner and represent a client’s best interests within the limits of one’s professional responsibilities.

The National Press Photographers' Code of Ethics also encourages its members:

Think proactively, as a student of psychology, sociology, politics, and art to develop a unique vision and presentation.

The Professional Photographers of America Code of Ethics simply states to its members:

Each member and participant shall agree to use the highest levels of professionalism, honesty, and integrity in all relationships with colleagues, clients, and the general public.

Being a world citizen (hopefully) correlates to at least some understanding of global history, and understanding that race is a sensitive topic in any country. Being a human being (hopefully) correlates to the desire to help others, rather then watch them perish right in front of one's eyes. On top of being human, all members related to the publication of the controversial content discussed above work in the photography or design industry. Or at least have a strong connection to it. Why didn't they think twice about the repercussions tied to their decision to publish the content. Did they not have viewers' interpretations in mind?

One common theme threads all of these cases together: at some point during the process of sparking the idea, photographing, postproduction, and publishing the photo, video, or ad, no one seemed to think twice about how the published content would be interpreted by viewers. If someone did, they didn't bother voicing their opinion, or didn't voice it loud enough. Regardless, the industry has made too many of these mistakes in the past and being oversensitive to publishing sensitive content is way over due.

What do you think?

Tim Behuniak's picture

Timothy Behuniak is a Salt Lake City-based landscape and outdoor adventure photographer who's passionate about getting lost in the woods with his camera. Tim's hope is that his viewers, like him, will one day love and fight to protect the beautiful locations he is fortunate to photograph.

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A lack of humanity. Code be damned.

A lack of humanity? You don't think that's a tad extreme?

Not in the case of the Subway or the Girl. Screw the code, help the human. As for the H&M image, well that's just either overt racism, or a complete lack of awareness. That image must surely have been seen by a number of people and not one thought "perhaps we shouldn't use this shot"? My guess is that it was more stupid than deliberate. Or at least I would hope it was.

Totally agree. I thought his comment was referring to the H&M image. Bad idea but, yeah, stupidity.

I did mean the bottom photos yes.

Thanks for the clarification. :-)

Got to be honest I don't live in America. Out of that culture it wouldn't even have occurred to me to associate the word monkey with back people. It's not the 1950s. Shouldn't we actually be past that. Is this really an issue or just another social media storm in a teacup.


Racism is still in high abundance here, I'm sad to say.
We should be past it, but we aren't.

That's BS and you know it. White privilege is alive and well here. You know damn well if the Bundy's were black their asses would be in prison instead of walking free.
That's just one tiny example of the problem.

Not cool, and they knew exactly what they were doing. Time for brands to start paying attention to this stuff as people become more aware of its injustice

someone should be looking for a new job. how did this ever make it to print ?

I don't know how is the situation in the States but to me it's way worse the people who saw this picture and thought about racism (just because the little beautiful baby is black) then who made and published the picture and the H&M campain!

I can understand your sentiment; I personally wouldn't have thought about it this way right away. I honestly would've taken the picture and thought nothing of it. But I think it's totally reasonable to think about racism when seeing this image considering that the term "monkey" has been widely used to describe blacks (with a racist undertone) in the past.

The US has plenty of hate speech, and monkey is a popular one. The term was used regularly by bigots who used it against our last President and even against his wife, the First Lady.

Sorry about that. I didn't know all these things. Where i leave if i translate in my language what's written in the poulover we use it to call the little children in a sweet way. Hope you know what i mean.

I would have never made that connection but I see your point. My wife is Japanese and had always heard Americans refer to them as "Yellow Monkeys." She was surprised when I told her, I'd never heard that before. Now we tease each other about it. She's "Yellow Monkey" and I'm "White Monkey". We're obviously not denigrating each other. I wonder how we get to that point in society!? I'm not sure accusing everyone of racism is the way.

I think it's OK that you're doing that with each other because for you and your wife, this is an inside joke of sorts. But imagine walking up to a Japanese person in the street, someone whom you have no connection with, and calling them a "Yellow Monkey" ... I'm not sure we'll ever get to a point in society where that is acceptable, because it simply isn't nice. I think that more than anything, people are upset that the company wasn't sensitive to the idea that their portrayal of a black kid in a sweatshirt with the text "coolest monkey in the jungle," might have been seen as a racist remark. Not that the company itself is racist.

There's a difference between calling someone a name and having a reference to something that could be a seen as an insult on a shirt. The problem, apparently, is having a black boy wearing the shirt. I wonder, but can't know, what the response would have been if a boy from any other ethnic group had been wearing the shirt in the ad. Could go either way.
I agree with Alistair, though, that it was just a stupid oversight. They apologized and took steps to correct it after they were made aware. I think everyone agrees it was a gaffe. The question is, was it negligence or did they just not think about it?

I agree. Would be interesting to know but doubt we ever will.

But monkey is a longstanding slur against black people, so what makes this so egregious is specifically that the child is black. If the child was white, there would be no connection to a racial slur against whites.

Sure, some people use it that way but not everyone does. So, do we become prisoners of those people or ignore their racism, making "monkey" a pet name for all children, not just white ones? In my experience, the best way to defeat these kinds of people is to ignore them. I don't know. I just think, we can't be brothers and sisters if we're constantly "walking on eggshells."

But what if "those kinds of people" are black. And specifically they feel objectified by it. Do we ignore them and their feelings?

I have no use for people who unreasonably feel sorry for themselves. Nobody gets a pass.

Personally, I do not get it. People are over sensitive these days. So what is wrong? The slogan? Coolest monkey in the jungle. I really see no difference vs other silly slogans.

I can understand your sentiment; I personally wouldn't have thought about it this way right away. I honestly would've taken the picture and thought nothing of it. But I think it's totally reasonable to think about racism when seeing this image considering that the term "monkey" has been widely used to describe blacks (with a racist undertone) in the past.

Should we rename the animal then? While we're at it, someone should start a boycott to rename Cracker Barrel. That name is offensive to "poor white trash" people (like me) that grew up hearing that pejorative term. I think we've all been called terrible names at some point. Do you try to do away with the word because you've allowed it to define you, or do you step up and define yourself?

Very good point! I totally understand that.

It's not so much the word, but the context in which it was used considering black people have been called monkey before. Imagine a black-owned company letting a white kid wearing the same shirt that said the coolest cracker in the pack? I'm sure a lot of people would feel offended too.

You don't have to rename the animal. But there's absolutely no need to call or depict a black child as a monkey. This boy isn't a monkey; he's a human being. Sounds like you're really comfortable using racist words.

"Sounds like you're really comfortable using racist words." I think you need to step back. You're saying this simply because I am ok with the use of a very common non-racist word that has been been used by countless parents / grandparents / etc. as a term of endearment for the little kids in their life. When my daughter was little, it was common for us to joke about her being "our little monkey" because she was constantly climbing.... Climbing out of her crib, climbing around the furniture, climbing me, etc.

Truth is, Ann, you know nothing about me, and for you to insinuate this shows just what a shallow, overly-sensitive person you are. Just to clue you in: (a) My family tree covers 5 of the 7 continents (for whatever reason, we skipped over S. America and Antarctica); (b) I live in a well blended biracial family... and, yes, I've heard almost everyone in our family call the kids "silly little monkeys;" and (c) my parents taught me early in life that you judge a person by character, never color. The way I grew up, we couldn't afford to be racist. We all lived in the same neighborhood, went to the same schools, worked at the same jobs, we all relied on each other in hard times. We got along.

If you want to be offended by every word in the dictionary, that's fine... Go be angry and miserable. Just don't expect everyone else that lives in the real world to submit to your whining.

Mark, I think it's great that your family is so diverse. Of course no one would object to a family member referring to another family member as a monkey, or any other pet name.

Here's what the problem is, monkey has historical roots as a racist word. Obviously nobody in your family would use it with such connotations. The H&M chooses a black child to model the sweatshirt, that's a little suspect don't you think?

You're right, we should step up and define ourselves. Do you think we should also step up when a company posts a potentially racist photo?

It's a common racial slur to insult black people by calling them monkeys. Don't get how you think this is ok.

Ok, so same slogan and same picture with a white boy would be ok?

Probably. Because there wouldn't have been a racial connection made if the boy was white.

This is only racist if you think black people are monkeys which would make you racist not the advertisement.

That's ridiculous. You don't have to think that. You just have to have an awareness of language and vocabulary and acknowledge that hate speech exists. Posessing some intelligence helps. Shame on you.

I agree. Too much PC going on. So people really thing someone at H&M was like, yah, let's be racist and make some people look stupid because of their skin color? I grew up near Detroit. I never heard anyone refer to a person of color as a monkey. Everyone just needs to chill.

You don't see what does not or has ever been applied to you. When this form of insult has been leveled at your person or your children, you'll understand. Maybe.

This type of insult has been aimed at my ancestors (Irish) but nobody remembers in this century. So, yeah, it means nothing to me to be called "Mick" or "Paddy" or have it insinuated I must be an alcoholic. So, no, I don't understand. Of course your experiences are surely different and the epithets, more recent.

You can't compare racism the Irish experienced to the racism that Black People have experienced and sadly continue to experience.

Neither is excusable and I'm not belittling it, but the extent and depth of racism Black People face simply dwarfs what the Irish suffered.

I'm not comparing them. I'm comparing being called derogatory names, a subset of racism as a whole. And, yes, I can compare them. We're not talking about racism here. We're talking about perceived intent about a word that isn't inherently racist. You people (that's right...now you're one of "you people" ;-) ) are extrapolating a minor PC gaffe to racism as a whole. 'Neither is excusable and I'm not belittling it, but the extent and depth of racism dwarfs the issue of this shirt.'
Like how I did that? I just made that up as I went. Damn I'm good! :-)

Being called names and having these notions engraved in the fabric of the dominant society to the point that it affects policy are vastly different. 2+ centuries of this. Again, if it's not you and yours, it's not that big a deal.

I really don't mean to be argumentative but, is it, in fact, engraved in the fabric of the dominant society? When I went to the Peace Museum in Hiroshima, JP, I was sure all the other tourists (Japanese) were looking at me, associating me with the horrors on display. I didn't want to make eye contact or talk to anyone (I speak passable Japanese). They weren't looking at me. They didn't think anything about my presence there.
You're right. I'm not everywhere and won't pretend to know what you've been called or what indignities you've suffered. But, again...we're talking about a shirt. Quite a few commenters have stated they wouldn't have made that connection. I'm equally sure a lot of people would have. F**k them!
The goal of terrorists is to make us afraid to live our lives normally. Are you willing to give that satisfaction to real racists?

Edit: I have no idea how you feel about being called names but at least you know it's the color of your skin and nothing to do with you personally. You can't imagine the taunting I've endured for being me. Not white. Not male. Not short, fat or ugly. Just being me.

Here's a sample of what I'm talking about. I'm a 50+ year-old college education man. I'm honest to a fault with no criminal entanglements except for a speeding ticket here and there. Hey, nobody's perfect, LOL! Once visiting a Smithsonian museum with my photo gear, security became suspicious as to it's ownership. Now, you can't walk the Smithsonian without tripping over a person with a camera. Yet, what could possibly have triggered suspicion about me and my gear? Engraved notions about what they perceived about this man with a camera, I believe was at the heart of that encounter. I could rattle off several other such life's encounters. But, this is what I'm talking about. The problem with that ad is that is resurrects times in the country when people of color were referred to and depicted in ways that weren't meant as terms of endearment. And as I said earlier, you don't see what hasn't or doesn't affect you. Such images reinforce certain biases whether overtly and covertly. That's the problem. People want to be able to say and do what they want? Fine. But, be prepared to be challenged.

Don’t even waste your time trying to explain your experiences to those who know nothing about being black. I feel you man

So does that mean a black kid cannot wear anything with a monkey on it? I think if you're looking for something to be racist you will find it. Sure, this can be taken as racist but if you look too deeply into anything it can be taken any way you like. This only divides us as a people.

....Again, Politics, religion etc...doesn't mix with our thing. Why keep putting these out. Had little to nothing to do with photography.

I think it mainly relates to thinking before publishing a photograph.

This is about a large brand...images a chosen, edited and published by committee. The photographer is the smallest cog..

Also this is a socio/political matter...why bring it here.

CES is on right now, anyone doing daily coverage??

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