According to The Value Exchange, after artist and brand partnerships are announced, the brand’s YouTube views increase by 40 percent and Twitter followers increase by 16 percent. The artist’s Instagram followers increase by 19 percent, and Twitter mentions increase by 17 percent. It’s proven that creative brand partnerships can have positive impacts for both the brand and artist, but depending on a brand’s behavior, artists can wield greater power. More than ever, artists are speaking up when they don’t agree with a brand’s representation of their art, values or culture, and it’s creating an impact.
In the last year, we’ve seen creative brand partnerships canceled with a major clothing retailer and two of the biggest consumer brands in America apologize and backstep due to pushback from the creative and activist communities they misappropriated or insulted. Artists and their audiences are passionate and connected, so whether it’s musicians dropping H&M over racist content or artists pushing back on Pepsi’s Black Lives Matter blunder, brands will suffer backlash both on and offline. The power of artists, emboldened by the Internet, has become abundantly clear.
Just last week, H&M set off a firestorm in the art community when it filed a lawsuit claiming “unsanctioned artwork,” such as graffiti or street art, should not be subject to copyright protections. The company ended up withdrawing the suit, but if they’d won, a precedent could have been set that would have negatively impacted artists around the world by leaving their work unprotected. Thereby, allowing companies to use it without permission or payment. After the online fervor, H&M withdrew its suit and told Huffington Post that it never intended to start a debate about street art.
H&M and Dove: Brand Partnerships Gone Wrong
Earlier this year, H&M released a photo of a young black model wearing a green sweatshirt emblazoned with the words, “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle.” As you can imagine, the Internet went wild with charges of racism, and social media critics were quick to call for a widespread boycott of the brand. Before H&M had even released a response, it had lost two – one long-standing, one new – creative brand partnerships with artists The Weeknd and G-Eazy.
The Weeknd lamented his relationship with the brand writing on Twitter, “…I’m deeply offended and will not be working with H&M anymore.” A day later, G-Eazy expressed his intent to cancel his partnership with H&M with the following Instagram message: “Over the past months, I was genuinely excited about launching my upcoming line and collaboration with H&M. Unfortunately, after seeing the disturbing image yesterday, my excitement over our global campaign quickly evaporated, and I’ve decided at this time our partnership needs to end.” Other artists including Questlove joined in on their condemnation saying, “I’m sure the apologies are a coming. And the ads will be pulled. I’m certain there will be media fixers and whatnot and maybe a grand gesture like a donation to some charity…”
Quickly, H&M pulled the product from its website and offered the following statement, “We would like to put on record our position in relation to the image and promotion of a children’s sweater, and the ensuing response and criticism. Our position is simple and unequivocal – we have got this wrong and we are deeply sorry.” The brand committed to doing everything they can to ensure something like this won’t happen again, but they’ve given no clear indication of the steps they will take in order to improve the creative process which allowed this racist mistake to happen in the first place. Unfortunately, this is just the latest example of brands and companies putting out racially insensitive content.
Dove, the personal care brand, often uses racist messaging in its advertisements. Just last year, the brand put an ad on Facebook showing a black woman lifting up a brown colored shirt to reveal a white woman in a light shirt as if to say “voilá, use Dove and this is what happens.” The brand spoke out on behalf of its content, but the Internet and consumers were not having it. That’s mostly because Dove has been caught in the act before. In 2011, Dove put out an ad showing three women standing in a line from darkest to lightest with before and after written above them. The ad’s implication? Black skin is dirty, lesser than white skin, and needs to be cleansed and therefore corrected.
For Dove, using racist content in editorial and advertorials is not new. Filmmaker Tariq Nasheed noted, “Let’s be clear, Dove knew exactly what they were doing with their racist ad. Soap companies used to do this racist theme all the time.” Which is true, soap companies over the years have used racism to sell their products. In the 1900s, Pear Soap created an ad showing a white child washing a black child revealing the black child once cleansed as white. We don’t see as much racist advertising as we did in the 1900’s, but it remains equally important for today’s creative artists to hold brands accountable and call out racist and insensitive content whenever and wherever they see it.
Because today’s brands are so keen on leveraging creative talent a la The Weeknd’s multi-year relationship with H&M, artists have more impact than ever before. So not surprisingly, Dove responded to the pushback from creatives like Tariq Nasheed, Gabrielle Union, Justine Skye with the following statement, “An image we recently posted on Facebook missed the mark in representing women of color thoughtfully. We deeply regret the offense it caused.” Based on the apology’s lukewarm reaction on social media, it seems no one is really buying it. But without the widespread blowback, we can almost bet there would be no end in sight for Dove’s continued racist advertising.
Pepsi Falls Flat with “Activist” Ad
Who could talk about brands behaving badly without mentioning the disaster of an ad Pepsi put out while trying – and massively failing – to co-opt the Black Lives Matter movement? Last Spring, Pepsi released a YouTube video showing model Kendall Jenner handing a police officer a Pepsi amid a social rights protest, therein ending the protest and establishing peace. The shot was a reference to the iconic Black Lives Matter image that shows Ieshia Evans standing peacefully amid approaching armed police officers. The response was swift and harsh. “If only Daddy would have known about the power of #Pepsi,” responded Bernice King, Martin Luther King Jr.’s youngest daughter on social media.
That’s hardly the feedback Pepsi and the ad creators were looking for. Soon, everyone from Black Lives Matter leaders to artists and musicians to advocates were talking about its appropriation. While speaking with Variety, Spike Lee didn’t mince his words: “It was horrible. The pregnant woman in Seattle got shot the other day. Philando [Castile], the whole world saw him get killed on Facebook, and the cop walked, and Pepsi did something like [that]. Don’t get me started. That was a complete appropriation of Black Lives Matter, and Black Lives Matter is not a joke. Black people getting shot down left and right, and cops are walking and they are going to make a commercial out of that?”
Just like H&M and Dove, Pepsi apologized for its work and did its best to alleviate brand damage. “Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly we missed the mark, and we apologize,” Pepsi wrote in a statement. “We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are removing the content and halting any further rollout. We also apologize for putting Kendall Jenner in this position.”
As artists, we can’t control what mistakes brands make, but we can educate ourselves on their pasts before getting involved in brand partnerships or buying merchandise. We can speak up when we see injustices. And we can break relationships and create movements when we disagree. Holding companies accountable to their stated values as artists shows your fans, partners and colleagues that you are willing to put your money where your mouth is. And that’s priceless.