H&M Racist Social Media Nightmare in South Africa

An African child in a green hoodie in an ad for Swedish clothing brand H&M has caused an incredible uproar in South Africa. On the front of the hoodie, across the child’s chest, are the words “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle.”

Cue: Fireworks.

G-Easy and The Weeknd immediately ended contact with H&M in protest (one of the few smart moves in this fine mess). And H&M has removed all images of the child from its marketing, but not before screen captures went viral on social media. The EFF, the largest organization protesting the images, has been all over the media. EFF National Spokesperson & Commissar Responsible for Communication, Mbuyiseni Ndlosi spoke for the many. “The time for excuses for racism is over, there should be consequences for racism, period!" He tweeted in Portuguese.

This story is fast moving, and so volatile that it will be studied for years afterwards as a prime incident of corporate social media backlash. The Ahmed Kathrada Foundation went from advocating for the H&M management and marketing division to undergo anti-racism and diversity training, to announcing that the corporation has agreed to do so – all during the course of several hours on Twitter!

Not everyone, however, agrees with the approach and position of the EFF. Aluxolo Ngcingwana, for example, tweeted, "Anti-Racism training? What is Ahmed Kathrada Foundation smoking."

Racist tweets, of course, got in on the racket, circulating photos and images of the protests on Twitter and Facebook. No links will be included on that front. 

What could have been done to prevent this? Certainly, if there had been someone of African descent on the marketing team at H&M, that image would probably not have been cleared. Also, the slow response – by present standards – on social media only exacerbated the situation. The EFF had already scheduled a protest by the time H&M had apologized and pulled the image. Too slow by a half. All of that having been said, all this second guessing solves nothing as the evolving story still has parts moving.

H&M has since apologized. They have also removed the offending image as well as the hoodie from retail, saying it was "investigating internally to ensure this can’t ever happen again." Swell and lovely. But the question remains: who okayed this ridiculous marketing decision?

H&M now has a tremendous South African problem. The Economic Freedom Fighters stormed H&M stores in Johannesburg this weekend. Protesters shut down H&M stores, and in one instance rubber bullets were fired at protesters by the police. “None of our staff or customers have been injured,” was the press report sent out by the company in the wake of protesters storming the stores. H&M has since closed its 17 South African stores in response, and apologized for the offending advertisement. The furor continues.

"I have closed up because we don't want any looting. We've seen what happened in Gauteng," a store manager told The Times Live. The stores the manager is referring to in Gauteng, by the way, were trashed this weekend; no arrests have been made.

"People wearing EFF shirts vandalised H&M stores‚ knocking over mannequins‚ breaking mirrors and using male underwear as sling shots," The Times Live reported. What is this world coming to?

The H&M Group is a fashion chain founded in the Swedish city Västerås in 1947. "Looking good should do good too,” is what it says on their Sustainability page. “That’s what our sustainability work is all about. To make sure our customers wear our products with pride, we have to be conscious in all our actions."

The official account of the Economic Emancipation Political Movement, the prime protesting force, has been highly active over the few days, as you can imagine. Images posted of the EFF protesting in H&M stores abound.

The story advances. BBC reported on Tuesday that the model wearing the hoodie has been forced to move. The family has since left their Stockholm, Sweden house following "security concerns." The model’s mother caused an outrage -- a further outrage -- over the weekend telling protesters to stop “crying wolf,” and to “get over it.” As you can imagine, this went over well.

"I respect other people's opinion on the issue. I know racism exists, but does the shirt to me speak racism? No it doesn't," she told BBC outside source.

It was precisely the wrong response. As this story goes to post, new oxygen in the form of outrage at the child’s parents, has been introduced to the conflagration.

One of the most disheartening things about this entire event is that many social media followers started tweeting that they, too, would put on the green hoodie if H&M had paid them. It seems as if this entire sordid marketing episode is only bringing out the worst of everybody involved.