H&Ms Apology for Tone-Deaf Monkey Sweatshirt Misstep Not Enough

Gail Mitchell | January 13, 2018

H&M’s "monkey" sweatshirt debacle is yet another sad reminder of how much more work needs to be done when it comes understanding the implications that can arise behind certain images and messaging. The Sweden-based global fashion chain is learning that firsthand after a photo of a young black male modeling a hoodie imprinted with the phrase “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle” went viral earlier this week (Jan. 8). 

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A barrage of comments ensued, with celebs from Questlove and Snoop Dogg to LeBron James and Diddy vociferously objecting to (and, in some instances, redesigning) the racially insensitive ad via Twitter and Instagram. H&M has also lost two high-profile celebrity endorsers thus far. Announcing his shock and embarrassment, The Weeknd —a previous collaborator on two collections for the clothing chain —tweeted that he would not work with H&M anymore. In advance of the March 1 launch of his own H&M collection, rapper G-Eazy terminated his agreement.

There are also unconfirmed reports that Diddy is planning to offer a $1 million modeling contract to the child model. His camp declined to comment to Billboard.

In the coming days and weeks, it will be interesting to see what the eventual fallout will be for H&M. Will other music artists decline to associate with the multi-billion-dollar chain? What further steps will the firm take to recalibrate its in-house sensitivity meter? 

To date, H&M has removed the offensive image and garment from sale and issued a public apology that reads, in part: “We have got this wrong and we are deeply sorry. As a global brand, we have a responsibility to be aware of and attuned to all racial and cultural sensitivities – and we have not lived up to this responsibility this time. We will now be doing everything we possibly can to prevent this from happening again in the future.”

Over the last several years, H&M has worked extensively with established music stars via its seasonal campaigns and with rising stars through its magazine feature “H&M Loves Music.” The former includes prior collaborators such as Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Lana Del Rey, Chance the Rapper and Madonna. Foxes, Amason, Florrie and Lykke Li are among the artists that have sat down for “H&M Loves Music” profiles.

H&M closed out 2017 with “A Magical Holiday.” The holiday campaign video featured Nicki Minaj and actor/activist Jesse Williams. According to a source, Minaj — who wore a custom-made H&M dress to the 2017 MET Gala — still has an active deal with H&M. 

Minaj, however, hasn’t made any public comment about the H&M controversy. Amid social media musings about her silence, it’s been reported that Minaj has deleted her H&M Instagram posts. Her manager Gee Roberson, a partner in the Maverick management consortium that also co-manages G-Eazy, has not responded to Billboard’s request for comment. Williams, a co-star on the ABC drama Grey’s Anatomy, has since taken H&M to task on Instagram, underscoring his comments with an image of the company’s all-white board of directors.

Michelle Huff Elliott, partner in the New York-based, full-service PR and experiential marketing agency Strategic Heights Media, says H&M’s apology isn’t enough. Citing two 2017 incidents — Dove’s body wash campaign wherein a black woman turns into a white woman and Pepsi’s misappropriation of the #BlackLivesMatter movement in an ad featuring Kendall Jenner — Huff says, “This H&M incident again lets you know that no one of color is involved in these creative teams. And their apology seems like more of a task rather than a sense of duty. H&M is a huge brand among people of color. What other actionable moves is H&M going to make? They’ve supported so many popular and up-and-coming artists. Why not do a concert and donate the money to boys and girls clubs or another charitable cause?” 

An entertainment attorney tells Billboard that if H&M addresses the issue “honestly and explains how they’re going to rectify it,” then the situation will likely blow over. “Talent is oftentimes forgiving,” he adds. “A year from now when somebody gets a hefty check waved in front of them ...?”

Aside from the Jenner/Pepsi controversy last April, the beverage brand has continued to spotlight emerging music acts through its Sound Drop platform. The program’s 2017 lineup included Khalid, James Arthur and MAX. And songs by Lady Antebellum (“Good Time to be Alive”) and Zedd  and Alessia Cara (“Stay”) have since soundtracked Pepsi commercials.

In the latest twist to the H&M saga, Terry Mango, who has identified herself in social media posts as the mother of the young black model, dismissed the outcry in a Facebook post. “Get over it,” she wrote. “Stop crying wolf all the time.”

In the meantime, H&M’s U.K. website is currently offering another kids’ sweatshirt — this one emblazoned with the message “I Will Change the World!” Hopefully, H&M is taking the full measure of those words to heart as the company re-examines its tone-deaf misstep. For others, it’s a heads-up to reassess their own cultural checks and balances.

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About the author: Gail Mitchell is a senior editor at Billboard, covering R&B/Hip-Hop and other genres.