Elvis Presley is a cultural icon known as "the King of Rock and Roll," but upon his death in 1977, the African-American newspaper Chicago Defender contested that legacy: "Naw he ain’t… [African-American singer and songwriter] Chuck Berry is the King of Rock. Presley was merely a Prince who profited from the royal talent of a sovereign ruler vested with tremendous creativity. Had Berry been white, he could have rightly taken [Presley’s] throne and worn his crown well."
The newspaper and others since have accused Presley and some of his peers of taking forms of black music – which were sidelined in a segregated US – passing it off as their own, and profiting from it. Presley is just one glaring example of something that has happened throughout history, but which has only recently been named: cultural appropriation.
Today, the fault line found in Presley’s catalogue runs through every form of culture, from music to fashion to advertising. In the last of those sectors, the past year alone was rife with brands guilty of cultural appropriation. Marks & Spencer labelled a vegan wrap as biryani, while disregarding key elements of the Indian dish and even misspelling it as "biriyani". Dior’s "Sauvage" fragrance and campaign were slammed for perpetuating harmful stereotypes of Native Americans. Gucci fell foul when it sold an "Indy Turban" headwrap for more than £600, ripping off the Sikh article of faith.
These and numerous other errors have shone a spotlight on the problem of cultural appropriation in marketing and advertising. "We’ve reached a critical point where it’s on the radar, but sadly people are still getting it wrong," Shelina Janmohamed, an author and vice-president for Islamic marketing at Ogilvy UK, says. Yet many brands are still misdiagnosing the issue, while failing to recognise the root causes in the creative industries.
The term "cultural appropriation" first came into use in the late 20th century, amid discussions about multiculturalism and globalism, but the problem was identified decades earlier, when Harlem Renaissance writers in the US criticised the caricature of African-American voices and traditions in entertainment such as minstrel shows.
Simply put, cultural appropriation is "when you take some elements of other cultures, you try to pass them off as your own, and you try to derive commercial benefit from it – without crediting the people who created that culture or letting them be at the forefront", Janmohamed explains. "This is particularly exacerbated when the cultures that created it are denigrated for those same traits that are then celebrated."
More of these clashes are arising in a globalised age and with the dominance of digital platforms, where ideas and content are sometimes shared without acknowledgement of the primary source. "We live in a time where nothing is original and nothing is being done for the first time," Tarik Fontenelle, co-founder and chief research officer of strategic insight agency On Road, says. "We’re seeing more conflicts within that space day to day, but there’s a line here we need to acknowledge."
While Presley and early 20th-century US entertainers may have escaped a backlash in their time, the world has changed, and it is now more difficult for perpetrators of cultural appropriation to go unnoticed.
"The consumer has much more power. We call this generation the ‘call-out generation’ because we are very quick to be able to spot when that line’s been crossed," Ollie Olanipekun, co-founder and creative director of creative agency Superimpose, says. "People who have been marginalised are now in positions to fight back. Now we have the platforms where our voices can be heard and we have influence."
Olanipekun points to the popularity of social-media platforms such as Diet Prada, an Instagram account that exposes copycats and other failings in the fashion industry, including instances of cultural appropriation.
This issue can become difficult to navigate in creative departments, which naturally seek inspiration from a wide array of sources. "We accept that someone has a great idea and you build on that, and that’s how advertising develops. The industry we work in is about creativity and that does mean adopting cultures and ideas that come from all around the world, and being on the cutting edge of trends," Janmohamed says. "It’s reasonable for us to look at trends in cultures and how they develop."
Roshni Goyate, co-founder and head of communications at The Other Box, an organisation aimed at increasing diversity in the creative industries, uses this analogy to understand how cultures can influence each other: "Culture is not Tetris blocks. It doesn’t have boundaries around it where we can say this belongs to me, therefore you can’t touch it. It’s more like a lava lamp – it’s moving and blending."
However, the danger comes when money or profit enter the equation, and one cultural group tries to capitalise on another. That means advertisers, in the business of selling products and growing brands, should be on higher alert. "You’re making money off somebody else’s creative idea," Janmohamed warns.
'We call this generation the ‘call-out generation’ because we are very quick to be able to spot when that line’s been crossed'
— Ollie Olanipekun, Superimpose
The writer Nisi Shawl, in a 2004 essay about cultural appropriation, shared useful guidelines to steer clear of this. While she was addressing writers who wished to borrow others’ cultural tropes in literature, the same framework could be applied to brand marketing: are you acting as an invader, a tourist or a guest?
Shawl explained: "Invaders arrive without warning, take whatever they want for use in whatever way they see fit. They destroy without thinking anything that appears to them to be valueless. They stay as long as they like, leave at their own convenience. Theirs is a position of entitlement without allegiance."
M&S, Dior and Gucci are among the many brands that could be viewed by some as acting as invaders. One example from outside advertising illustrates the thornier aspects of cultural appropriation. Last year, the Russian electronic DJ Nina Kraviz faced an outcry after posting photos on social media of her hair in cornrows, which also drew attention to the name of her 2011 track Ghetto Kraviz; "ghetto" has been widely used as a derogatory term towards black people. Kraviz defended her choices but failed to acknowledge her privilege as a white woman. Also last year, a school in north London banned its female students, many of whom are black, from wearing cornrows, but quickly reversed the decision after a wave of criticism.
"When those things are applied to black artists, you don’t get the same praise – you don’t get the luxury. When something is demonised when applied to one culture and then celebrated when used by a more dominant one, that’s the main crux of it," Jumi Akinfenwa, music supervisor at music and sound agency Pitch & Sync, says.
In Shawl’s explanation, "tourists" may be less destructive but come with their own pitfalls, just as travellers to a foreign country can be careless and annoying: "They’re generally a nuisance, but at least they pay their way. They can be accommodated. Tourists may be ignorant, but they can be intelligent as well, and are therefore educable.
"When first learning about and incorporating aspects of another’s culture, then, we ought to act like the best of all possible tourists: to stay alert and to be observant, watch for the ways our own background influences how we interpret our surroundings. We ought to remember that we have baggage. We ought to be prepared to pay for what we receive. We ought to be honest about the fact that we’re outsiders. And since we’re in an unfamiliar setting, we shouldn’t be ashamed of occasionally feeling lost. We ought to swallow our pride at such times and ask for help, ask for directions."
Some brands have shown themselves to be decent tourists. O2 was one, when it launched a 2019 Rugby World Cup campaign that paid tribute to samurai culture. The theme made sense for the England Rugby sponsor, because of the tournament’s location in Japan and the fact that England’s coach, Eddie Jones, is half-Japanese and adheres to principles from the Bushido samurai code. But the campaign could easily have gone wrong if O2 and its agency VCCP had "aped stereotypes, which tends to perpetuate inaccuracies", Julian Douglas, vice-chairman of VCCP, says.
The creative team consulted samurai experts during the making of the ad, down to every detail including the warriors’ armour. "Often where brands get it wrong is if they don’t involve people from whichever culture and if they’re not paying respect," Douglas says. "There’s a difference between paying respect and homage to the culture, rather than trading off the back of it."
More recently, Ikea stood out last year with a Christmas ad set to a track by grime MC D Double E. The campaign came soon after the Swedish retailer apologised for adding jerk chicken with rice and peas to its menu while failing to meet the basic qualifications of the Caribbean dish, by using garden peas instead of beans. But at Christmas, it did better, building cred by enlisting a pioneer of grime and handing him the reins to create a song in his original style. Ikea was conscious that the ad should not "make a mockery" of the genre, Kemi Anthony, the retailer’s UK and Ireland advertising manager, says.
When D Double E first headed into the recording studio, "we agreed that he was still not being as true to himself as he could be. We thought, we brought you on for a reason so we want you to do what you do," Anthony recalls. Ikea and its agency Mother collaborated with the MC by bringing in producers he knew, letting him freestyle and "making sure he wasn’t compromising anything", she adds.
Not "watering it down" actually gave the ad mass appeal, and it was celebrated by members of the public, press and grime fans alike, Anthony says. D Double E went on to debut the full-length track on BBC Radio 1 and make an accompanying music video. "An unsung hero came from this unlikely partnership not only intact but with a bigger platform than he had before," Mother partner Hermeti Balarin says.
The lesson for other marketers, Anthony says, is to stay brave and authentic: "We had to do it properly and not be scared to embrace what grime is, or not do it at all. I didn’t want that halfway house."
However, Fontenelle takes a contrarian view of Ikea’s ad, which shows a couple fixing up their flat after household objects come to life and mock them for its shabbiness. He applauds the music and craft but worries that "it drives home the politics of comparison, making you look at yourself and say: ‘I don’t have as nice stuff as my mates.’ That’s where culture can be used as a dangerous weapon against people who are engaging with it."
Anthony contends: "‘Home shame’ is a thing; people do experience it. We were saying, actually your home is not as bad as you think it is, and with some easy fixes, it’s fine." Yet the concern raised by Fontenelle shows how a brand acting as a cultural "tourist" can easily be misunderstood.
According to Shawl, a tourist has the potential to turn into a guest, which is the best part to play: "Guests are invited. Their relationships with their hosts can become long-term commitments and are often reciprocal."
In marketing, Nike epitomises the role of a good guest. Realising that it had lost touch with London’s youth culture, three years ago the brand turned to Fontenelle’s company On Road to conduct research. "They came to us and said: ‘We just want to learn.’ They set up five or six hypotheses and not a single one was right. They were, like: ‘Yay, we’re wrong,’" Fontenelle says. "That’s a real lesson: you need to learn when someone’s telling you you’re wrong about something."
What resulted from that lesson is one of the most lauded UK campaigns in recent years: Nike’s "Nothing beats a Londoner". A big reason that the ad was so loved and able to speak to the heart of London’s youth was that it involved many of those same kids in the creative process. "You can see it in the trueness of the campaign and the way people reacted to it and connected with it. It really reflects them and is in their voice," Fontenelle says.
In fact, the ad in 2018 was just the beginning of a five-year commitment that Nike made to support young Londoners. Since then, it has signed multi-year partnerships with youth sports organisations such as London Youth Games and Virgin Sport in Hackney, and it is transforming retail spaces, including its Shoreditch shop, into community centres. At a time when many young people in the capital are being vilified in the media, Nike is championing their entrepreneurship and creativity.
"I want that to be the standard for all companies – working naturally within culture and finding a true exchange of cultures," Fontenelle says.
But Nike is still an exception among brands, not the rule. Cultural appropriation missteps expose a deeper problem in advertising and marketing. "Our industry has a woeful underrepresentation of people from diverse backgrounds," Janmohamed says. "Even when they are there, there isn’t a culture where those views can be properly heard and addressed."
When attempting to borrow from other cultures, Janmohamed warns against "wandering down the corridor and picking your local woman of colour or your nearby Muslim man, thrusting something in front of them and saying: ‘Is this alright?’. That disrespects the professional expertise that is needed."
'When something is demonised when applied to one culture and then celebrated when used by a more dominant one, that’s the main crux of it'
— Jumi Akinfenwa, Pitch & Sync
Before starting his own agency, Olanipekun was put in that position numerous times. "I was wheeled out as the cultural guy, the guy who was ‘down’. Sometimes it would be a topic on the West Indian community, and I’m, like, my parents are from Africa, that’s quite far from Jamaica. That was very prevalent," he recalls. "But when it came to celebrating me internally and giving me those promotions, they were not interested."
Through her work with The Other Box, Goyate has found that the "emotional labour is still falling on minority communities to do the vocalising. It shouldn’t be that way."
She adds: "All you can do is say, that Indian or black person we’ve hired, are we giving them opportunities across all of the projects, accounts and briefs? That adds a level of nuance rather than just reductive stereotyping and borrowing. Companies should be looking at this from a holistic point of view – it needs to be about long-term behaviours. What are they doing to help the communities in which they operate or make sure their company culture is inclusive?"
As long as a lack of diversity persists, so will cultural appropriation. "It’s always going to be an issue as long as the world is out of tilt. That’s the harsh reality," Olanipekun says.
Yet there is a hunger for new cultural icons and stories – it is evident everywhere from the reception of an underground grime MC to the London kids who became the beloved stars of a Nike ad.
"For far too long we’ve had our stories whitewashed or not been able to tell our own stories," Olanipekun says. "Now all of these marginalised groups are saying: ‘Why are you talking for me?’"