Lessons in semiotics from H&M's 'coolest monkey' epic fail
A view from Martina Olbertova

Lessons in semiotics from H&M's 'coolest monkey' epic fail

What what wrong that led to H&M creating an ad that was called out for being "casually racist", asks the founder and chief executive of Meaning.Global.

After the Dove shortcomings in 2017, this is another count of a major global brand failing due to its profound insensitivity to the cultural context.

In the aftermath of this event, Abel Tesfaye – better known as the Grammy-winning artist The Weeknd – called off all future collaborations with H&M saying on Instagram: "Woke up this morning shocked and embarrassed by this photo. I’m deeply offended and will not be working with @hm anymore..."

Questions, questions, everywhere

Even though H&M apologised almost immediately, the damage was done. I never really understood how these cultural insensitivities get a green light, nor how they're skipped in the vetting process. Is it the complete disregard for the brand existing in a universal/global cultural context? Is it a faulty supply chain management? Is it a simple omission due to the sheer volume and speed of products and marketing materials being churned out on a daily basis as a sort of by-product of late capitalism?

It's hard to imagine no one caught this when it's so obvious to the customers in the instant it hits the real world. I always feel bad when something like this happens, especially when it was so easily preventable.

So what are the key learnings from this (yet another) cultural fail that could be generified and applied further on? Here are the three key learnings for brands that come to mind first:

1. Context overrides the text (AKA product)

If one sentence should get close to a mantra in advertising, it’s this one: context is the message.

It seems fairly straightforward, but it's not. Maybe for its eloquence. What it means is that the context in which you present your message or a product bears a much higher symbolic significance to the overall framing of your message or a product, that it will override the meaning of a message you intended to convey. Think of context as the ultimate ace – it ups the ante. The framing of your product becomes your message. Even if it's not what you wanted to say.

Perhaps one of the most fundamental axioms of marketing semiotics is that the context overrides text and creates a new meaning. Context is not only the new product, it's also the new brand. Therefore, the brand’s – even if unintentional – culturally insensitive framing of a product photoshoot is the wider message about H&M as a brand and its core values. Unfortunate, but true.

2. Meaning is malleable, but it sticks

Meaning has this one unfavorable quality: It’s highly malleable, changing its nature based on a context, but once it’s connected to something tangible (through a shared network of mental associations), it tends to stick in people’s minds for a long time.

So if you create a meaning you don't want to be associated with or that counters your brand values due to association with a context you didn't intend to tap into, you can be sure that it will stay with people for some time. It takes a ferocious amount of consistency to counter that effect and restore a positive brand image again. The same it works with people and countering a bad impression, really.

3. Brands need to be responsible for the meanings they create

If you're a brand, let alone a globally successful one, this is one of the most critical things you need to constantly carry in mind: think about what it means before you design it.

If the context is the message, it's clear that you should be aware of the possible meanings you could create in the context of the world out there. As always, we should think about possible meanings and cultural implications before we design anything – a product, a piece of communication or a brand. Brands need to take on responsibility for their own creations, especially if they have a potential to disrupt the flow of culture and insult people and their historical, political or social experiences in our society – our shared collective memory.

As brands start and profit from joining ongoing cultural conversations, they need to make sure their messaging goes with and not against culture as they’ll be the ones responsible for the consequences. Brands need to own the outcome of mining the cultural context for meaning. They need to be held accountable for the meanings they put out in the world. Being aware of and accountable for your meaning footprint should be one of the most fundamental pillars of the Corporate Social Responsibility.

If a high carbon footprint is bad for our environment, the toxic meaning footprint is bad for our minds, polluting our sense of self, our secure position in the world around us and is bad for our mental health. And of course, for the brand's business.

Own your context. Own your life.

Dr Martina Olbertova is a founder and chief executive of Meaning.Global