2017 saw its fair share of company and industry failures. United had a paying customer dragged off a plane. Pepsi made light of the Black Lives Matter movement. Papa Johns CEO & Head Spokesman blamed his company’s shortcomings on NFL protests. It’s difficult to summarize how bad Equifax’s blunder was in one sentence, but I’ll try: A stranger has your financial data now. If you’re like me, you were wondering what company/brand would be the first to slip in 2018. Well, turns out it didn’t take long.
H&M broke the seal on that earlier this week with an image on their website that struck a reasonable nerve. I say it’s a pretty big deal. To have a child, a black child, wear the only piece of clothing in you’re marketing that identifies the wearer as a monkey is significant. It’s a massive fumbling of the rock, but I’m willing to bet it wasn’t done with malice of forethought…or hell any forethought really. I think it’s controversies like this, similar to this and others like Pepsi and Dove, are symptomatic of an industry problem.
I have a theory, and it’s as simple as this: There are no people of color on these Marketing/Media teams, at least not in any position of control or influence. I believe these teams are largely homogenized on the basis of race. If you have a group of similar people who are tasked to communicate with everyone, a misstep like the PR dumpster fire H&M is experiencing now is inevitable.
I came to this conclusion solely on observation. This was mainly based on anecdotal evidence. After all, my background is in Advertising. I’ve had internships, jobs, gigs and even job interviews in which I couldn’t find another POC in the department.
Turns out, it’s not just anecdotal. Roughly 85% of Marketing and Sales Managers identify as white. A similar number is true for Art & Creative Direction. As a whole, almost 82% of the Advertising, Media and Public Relations Industry identifies as White. Considering roughly 62% of the U.S. population identifies as white, this is disproportionate representation.
Diversity is truly a strength, for many reasons, one being multiple perspectives. I believe a group of white professionals, even if they’re well-intentioned, will not always be cognizant of such a landmine. They are not conditioned to analyze appearances in the same way.
As black man, I’m pretty much always aware of appearances. For example, I make sure I’m never late for anything. This isn’t just because I hate the thought of missing something. It is also partly due to the fact I’m aware of THAT stereotype about black people. All black people have something like this. It could be talking a certain way, dressing a certain way or even tipping at least 15%. It’s something unique to the POC experience.
To wrap a bow on this (because it’s time to get some lunch), it’s time for the industry to gain a more diverse perspective. Not just an apology, store deal or shelling out for a new spokesman, but substantive hires. It is impossible for anyone to be aware of all the societal pitfalls all the time. However, collectively, it can be done to make sure material is treated and presented with sensitivity. I don’t want to seem like an apologist here, because that’s not what I’m doing. H&M and every company with a similar problem deserve the L. If companies don’t take this step, the next one with the PR crisis is anyone’s guess.