H&M slammed over 'racist' clothes ad

Retailer apologises after netizens criticise its image of a young black boy wearing a sweatshirt with the saying "Coolest monkey in the jungle"

NEW YORK • You cannot monkey around with sensitive topics. Which explains why H&M has apologised for an online advertisement featuring a young black boy wearing a sweatshirt reading "Coolest monkey in the jungle".

The image, recently advertised on the Swedish clothing retail company's website in Britain, ignited an uproar on social media, with critics saying it was tone-deaf and filled with racist undertones.

"We understand that many people are upset about the image. We, who work at H&M, can only agree," H&M said on 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.

"It is obvious that our routines have not been followed properly. We will thoroughly investigate why this happened to prevent this type of mistake from happening again."

People took to Twitter on Monday, noting that other sweatshirts from the same line, including one reading "Survival expert", were modelled by white children.

"So the black kid gets to wear the H&M sweater with 'Coolest monkey in the jungle' and the white kid one with 'Survival expert'. This is beyond disgusting. It's a projection of your neo-colonial thinking," one person tweeted.

"You won't see me anywhere near your shops these days."

Twitter was also abuzz with criticism from celebrities, journalists and social justice advocates.

"Woke up this morning shocked and embarrassed by this photo," wrote music artist Abel Makkonen Tesfaye, better known as The Weeknd. "I'm deeply offended and will not be working with @hm anymore."

New York Times columnist Charles Blow asked H&M whether it had lost its mind.

Retail strategist Wendy Liebmann said it is imperative that companies, especially those in the retail industry, are conscious about how their products are perceived by consumers.

"Sometimes this happens - a global company is not sensitive to another culture, another political commentary," said Ms Liebmann, chief executive of WSL Strategic Retail. "This is a consciousness that we should all have at any time - not just at these heightened times."

She noted that such incidents used to blow over more quickly, but not in today's digital age.

"We're much more sensitive and much more overt in expressing ourselves," she said, adding that H&M needs to address the issue and be sensitive with its other collections.

Still, some argued on Twitter that despite how it appeared, H&M may not have had negative intentions.

"Am I the only one who doesn't feel h&m meant it like that with the black little baby in the monkey shirt? Kids wear little cute stuff like that all the time," one person noted.

Other brands have had similar issues, including Abercrombie & Fitch, Urban Outfitters and Zara.

International personal care brand Dove faced backlash late last year after running a video advertisement for body wash that appeared to show a black woman removing her shirt to reveal a white woman.

Dove responded at the time with an apology, saying it had "missed the mark in representing women of colour thoughtfully".


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 10, 2018, with the headline 'H&M slammed over 'racist' clothes ad'. Print Edition | Subscribe