H&M: Everyone is to blame for this monkey on our back

By Tafi Mhaka

To understand how calculated racial aggression and commercial discrimination have collided with the blissful indifference of free-spending customers and achieved highly lucrative brand equity and excellent financial returns for brands that certainly operate without a moral compass, you could go as far back as 1991, the year when Italian sportswear company Benetton caused considerable outrage with its ‘United Colours of Benetton‘ communication campaign.

Last week, photos of Liam Mango modelling a "coolest monkey in the jungle" hoodie went viral, with social media users accusing H&M of racism.
Photos of Liam Mango modelling a “coolest monkey in the jungle” hoodie went viral, with social media users accusing H&M of racism.

The distasteful marketing effort included a commercial titled “Angel and Devil” that featured two babies, one white, the other black. It suffices to say that Benetton successfully sold a disgusting representation of ethnic-based discrimination to a mainly Caucasian customer base.

This brand of commercial racism and an accompanying absence of collective activism remain common and uncomfortable truths in 2018, especially since all established brands evolve through a combination of considered financial decisions and regular market research that inspires consumer confidence and loyalty.

Even in the face of elaborate and embarrassing revelations of questionable commercial practices, an expansive range of seemingly “awesome” and “cool” high-priced brands such as Nike and Apple still excels in the marketplace.

California-based Apple Music, a venture established by Apple Inc. through the $3.2-billion [~R39.6-billion] acquisition of Beats Music and Beats Electronics in May 2014 — companies then owned by U.S. producer and rapper Dr Dre and Interscope Records founder Jimmy Iovine — has had to deal with a fair share of social scandal in recent times.

That Dr Dre has produced so many misogynistic songs and experienced several brushes with the law should raise questions about whether Apple Music can lay claim to possessing a moral character good enough for millions of female music lovers.

Dr Dre has produced critically acclaimed and high-selling albums for the likes of NWA, Snoop Doggy Dogg, Xzibit, Dogg Pound, Tupac and Eminem. Crucially, these hit records –– seminal offerings such as “Straight Outta Compton” and “Doggystyle” –– have songs that flaunt deeply ingrained misogynistic attitudes. “A Bitch Is A Bitch” is just one such unexceptional song amongst many.

So is “It Ain’t No Fun“, a funk-filled tribute to gang rape. And on a personal level, the Compton-based producer has long exhibited a predilection for perpetrating extreme violence against women.

Michel’le, an ex-girlfriend of Dre, in 2016 released a biopic named “Surviving Compton: Dre, Suge & Michel’le” that details her highly abusive six-year relationship with the super-rich producer. Dr Dre also pleaded guilty to punching and physically assaulting female journalist Dee Barnes in 1990.

Nonetheless, millions of well-off, brand-conscious customers have ignored these macho shenanigans and funded the amazing commercial success of the Beats by Dre headphone brand. Similarly, the flagrant and violent abuse of females did not hinder Apple Inc. from going into business with Dr Dre.

Celebrities such as Diddy, Pharrell Williams, Amber Rose, actress Rebel Wilson, Nicki Minaj, swimming champ Michael Phelps and Karlie Kloss have all endorsed the expensive line of headphones named after the former NWA rapper.

And after all of the shocking realities around Dr Dre and ubiquitous allegations of unfair labour practices levelled against Chinese factories that manufacture iPhones, iWatches and iMacs, a 2016 Interbrand survey rated Apple as the most valuable brand in the world, ahead of companies such as Google, Coca-Cola and Microsoft.

So while the brouhaha over the H&M “monkey” hoodie advertisement appears to reflect wholesale anger with a pugnacious brand personality, individual preferences and the reality of economic and racial stratifications have regularly shown how consumers remain quite selective –– and plain slippery –– about the brands they choose to pick commercial fights with.

This was evident last week, when explosive statements filled acres of space on social media, as The Weeknd, LeBron James and Diddy slammed clothing manufacturer H&M. But the same celebrity activism has not been directed towards Apple for the blatant mental and physical abuse of underpaid Chinese labourers.

Plus, I have yet to hear basketball great Michael Jordan rallying against sportswear manufacturer Nike for being associated with alleged sweatshops in Hansae, Vietnam. And although James has, along with the Milwaukee Bucks, Dallas Mavericks and Memphis Grizzlies, refused to stay in hotels owned by Donald Trump, I am still to hear him or Diddy speaking out against the physical abuse claims that have hounded Dr Dre since the 1980s.

Neither have I heard these celebrities complaining about how Anglo-Dutch oil giant Shell has allegedly been complicit in human rights abuses in Ogoniland, Nigeria.

And worryingly, consumers hardly examine the moral values behind the commercial products and services that they utilise on a daily basis, especially when a strict set of ethical standards and a firm sense of empathetic togetherness should influence financial decisions on the brands which occupy crucial spaces in our lives.

It is time for all brands to fulfil a commercial and humane need to build an equal, nonracial and rich society, and consistently align themselves with progressive ideas that eschew the commercial bigotry H&M and Dove have invariably found themselves entangled in.

Consumers should establish beneficial and meaningful relationships with brands that have a commercial conscience, demand high levels of social responsibility from businesses, and insist on the enactment of laws that discourage confrontational communication.

It is not through chance that the H&M saga has come to dominate the news –– it is the product of a deliberate and disdainful assault on civil liberties, ostensibly for cash and increased market share.

So H&M should face serious commercial ramifications and then step into the free world with an appreciation of how life in 2018 demands an all-inclusive form of brand communication and responsibility.

As for you and me, it is time to enter the good fight.