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Is this the year advertisers wake up to perils of cultural appropriation?

The Guardian // 28th May 2017

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Is this the year advertisers wake up to perils of cultural appropriation?” was written by Afua Hirsch, for The Guardian on Sunday 14th May 2017 13.00 UTC

It’s not every day that I get drawn into a debate over whether Bob Marley stole his hairstyle from the pharaohs, and the rights and wrongs of Lionel Shriver’s sombrero. But 2017 is shaping up to be that kind of year. The kind remembered, I hope, as a time when advertisers finally woke up to fact that cultural appropriation – as in ripping off long-stigmatised cultures without giving them due credit – is not going to end well for their brands.

2017 has already produced a bumper crop of misjudgments. Pepsi released its toe-curlingly bad advert in which Kendall Jenner took part in a protest that ripped off images from the civil rights and Black Lives Matter movements, only to climax with the model sharing a Pepsi with the police. This ludicrous scenario offered endless and priceless opportunities for parody, such as the tweet posted by Martin Luther King’s daughter picturing the civil rights leader being shoved by a white officer, with the caption: “If only Daddy would have known about the power of #Pespi.”

There was Shea Moisture, a brand that readers who don’t have afro hair probably hadn’t heard of until it was in the news for infuriating its core consumer base.

These curl smoothies devotees – a group in which I include myself – had been quietly turning Shea Moisture from a small, family business into a lucrative global brand, only to see themselves erased from its image once the company decided to raise its profile. Last month it unveiled an ad featuring three white women and one black woman whose long hair was atypical of most with afro hair. “We really f-ed this one up,” the company later admitted, pulling the ad.

It may have been too little, too late. One prominent African American woman tweeted:

A brand that was built over more than 25 years, brutally and perhaps permanently damaged by one toxic ad.

No one seems to learn, of course. Most recently the Braid Bar, a business founded on the ingenious idea of offering traditional African hairstyles to white Selfridges shoppers – I can only infer black women are not their target audience, because so few seem to appear in its marketing – followed this well-worn path. It launched a campaign starring Lila Grace Moss, daughter of the eponymous Kate, wearing cornrows, renewing the cultural appropriation storm.

This is not, as it’s so often claimed, a kind of illiberal possessiveness drawing red lines at the supposed hard and fast boundaries of cultures. It’s an eruption of frustration towards the media, advertising and fashion industries that has been building for decades. While the Braid Bars of this world “cash-crop cornrows”, as the actor Amandla Steinberg so eloquently described it, there was little interest in the context that bore the culture, or the ongoing struggles that regularly besiege it.

I don’t think anyone would have minded the 14-year-old Lila Grace Moss rocking her braids in a world in which black women were proportionally prominent in images of hair and beauty, their contributions, talents and innovations acknowledged and celebrated. But the reality is that braids – a millennia-old black hairstyle – only became a “thing”, according to the online fashion giant Asos, when Cara Delevingne decided to wear them.

A black woman wearing her hair in braids to a job interview can still get told she doesn’t look suitable for selling “high-end” products. Jourdan Dunn, one of fashion’s most recognisable faces, was told that the reason black women didn’t feature in a high-end fashion publication was that “black models don’t sell magazines”.

When the Italian designer Valentino featured African prints in a fashion collection last year, it still used few black models but had the temerity to label its African-inspired clothes “primitive” and “wild”. For those of us having to constantly explain that colonial-era prejudice and racism still lurks beneath the fashion world’s gaze, that kind of language is actually rather helpful at making the point.

Valentino tried to remedy the situation but the damage was done. As usual, it was the wider unfairness, rather than the clothes themselves, that got critics upset. These root causes of anger and frustration – sentiments I share – are unlikely to disappear anytime soon. But if brands have to think twice about exploiting images of black culture for profit without referencing or including their inventors, that’s at least a step in the right direction.

Paid to promote

It’s hard to find anything positive to say about Kendall Jenner’s doomed Pepsi ad, but at least she clearly was being paid to promote – albeit pretty unsuccessfully – cans of Pepsi. Forty-five other celebrities – including her sister Kourtney Kardashian, Victoria Beckham and Naomi Campbell – have now been contacted by the US Federal Trade Commission with a warning about the requirement for full disclosure when using social media to advertise brands.

“A longstanding, core principal of fair advertising law in the United States is that people have a right to know when they are being advertised to,” complained a group of charities whose letter appears to have prompted the FTC intervention. It’s just a “reminder”, but the FTC is perfectly capable of showing its teeth too, as it did with Warner Bros last year, settling with the company over its failure to adequately disclose having paid influencers to post sponsored videos.

This is a rapidly growing field. Reports say 200,000 posts per month on Instagram are now tagged “#ad”, “#sp” or “#sponsored” – recognised ways of declaring financial gain from posts. It’s a serious business. A pay chart created by the internet marketing firm Takumi calculated that major influencers with more than 100,000 followers could quite easily make £150,000 a year from sponsored Instagram posts, and a humble journo like me, with my 20,000+ followers, could be making £26,000 a year with just two sponsored posts per week. So if you suddenly notice a load of vitamin pill recommendations on my Instagram feed …

It’s not right to leave UK consumers guessing, of course. The FTC’s British equivalent, the Competition and Markets Authority, has also been busy warning celebrities. It has also attempted to clarify the law as set out in the UK code of non-broadcast advertising, sales promotion and direct marketing. I wonder how many Geordie Shore stars have actually attempted to understand this piece of legalese. If advertising and sponsorship is going to continue on its Instagrammable, short-attention-span-compatible streak, the law would do well to find a way to adapt to that format, too.

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