How to avoid promoting the most racist sweatshirt in the world (or 3 things to help you avoid looking stupid, insensitive or worse when you publish something.)

(Yes, this actually ran as an ad. No, it did not go over well…)

Clothing manufacturer H&M found itself scrambling Monday when the advertisement above went viral on social media, leading many people to accuse the company of racism. The image of a black child wearing a “coolest monkey in the jungle” sweatshirt was pulled from all of the company’s advertising and company officials issued an apology. (As the article notes, this isn’t the first time an advertiser has manged to pump out a racially tone-deaf advertisement.)

The stereotyping of black people as “monkeys” or “apes” is not a new phenomenon, nor is it germane only to the United States, so attempting to give the Swiss-based company a pass on this racially insensitive ad doesn’t hold water. That said, the goal of this blog isn’t to beat up on people who make mistakes but to help you figure out how to avoid making mistakes like this in the first place. Here are three simple tips to help you avoid something like this:

  • Paranoia is your friend: Murphy’s Law includes the famous line about “whatever can go wrong, will go wrong” so it’s always best to plan for the worst. When you find yourself putting together ANYTHING that will be disseminated to the general public, you want to engage in some active paranoia. Read every word as if it might have a double meaning or if a misspelling might lead to an awkward moment (e.g. “Bill Smith, a pubic librarian, reads…”). Look at every image you have to see if anything could be misconstrued in a negative way or would cast aspersions on an individual or group. Go through every potential stereotype you can think of in your head and see if something looks like it might be playing into that stereotype (e.g., Is a blond woman shown to be less intelligent? Did you put a person of color into a “monkey” sweatshirt?). For example, check out this University of North Georgia course catalog cover:

    Notice anything particularly problematic? Like the white guy is winning the race, the other white guy is coming in second and the woman and the only person of color included in the image are coming in far behind?
    If you come across something that could cast a negative light on you or your organization, rethink your approach before publishing it.


  • Diversity is not a buzzword: One of the main reasons why having a broad array of people from various backgrounds and experiences in a media organization (or any organization for that matter) is because it help the organization gain a more diversified view of reality. Unfortunately, some places see diversity as a “check box” item in terms of race, gender or other demographic elements.
    In organizations that embrace this wider view of societal understanding, people can put ideas out there and open the floor for discussion. If the person who put the kid in the “monkey” sweatshirt didn’t see how this could be a negative stereotype, (and I’m not sure how this is possible, but still…) someone else in that organization who might have dealt with this kind of negative language could raise the issue. In the end, this likely would not have seen the light of day and thus we could have had a “cute kid in a sweatshirt” ad that didn’t lead people to think of the company as racially insensitive.


  • Know where the landmines are: As the famous Filak-ism notes, you will screw up at some point. Your face is not on a lunchbox. That said, some screw-ups are bigger deals than others, whether you know it or not. Case in point: I was interviewing for a job at a university in the southwest, so my wife and I went out and bought me some newer shirts and ties. When I got there, I got the stink-eye from some of the students and more than a few faculty members.

What I didn’t find out until much later in the interview was that my new shirt and tie combo was in the colors of that university’s most hated in-state rival. It probably wasn’t the only reason I didn’t get the job, but I’m sure it didn’t help.

When you are putting content out for public display, you should know what specific topics, ideas and issues are most sensitive to anyone in your audience. In the United States, pretty much anything having to do with race, gender or sex will have some pretty sensitive tripwires. In some cases, companies don’t pay enough attention to these possibilities, like when Bud Light got into a jam for using the phrase “The perfect beer for removing ‘no’ from your vocabulary for the night.” Critics charged it accentuated the ties between alcohol and rape culture.

It’s not easy to catch every mistake or avoid every public snafu, but it’s not hard to do a little research to figure out exactly where the biggest landmines might be and avoid them.

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