Wednesday, 14 December 2011

H&M Fake Bodies Furore


Eating out on my lunch break last week, I picked up a copy of G2* that was floating around in the coffee shop and was disappointed to read about a controversial marketing technique being used by one of my favourite clothes shops.

Columnist Jane Martinson was commenting on recent revelations that multinational retailer H&M has been using an amalgamation of plastic bodies and real faces to model swimwear and lingerie online.  Various sources are credited with breaking the story in early December, including Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet and Norwegian website Bildbluffen, and coverage seems to have been circulating the internet ever since. Reactions in columns and comment boards range from totally unperturbed to weary resignation and indignant outrage.

In defence of the company, press spokesperson Håcan Andersson is quoted as saying:

“This is a technique that is not new, it is available within the industry today and we are using it for our Shop Online in combination with real life models pictures and still life pictures… For all other marketing and campaigns – outdoor, TV, print and other media, H&M will continue to use real life models.”

To my mind, that is no where near an adequate answer. Superimposing real people’s (presumably airbrushed) heads onto fake bodies and passing them off as genuine individuals completely distorts the way the consumer relates to the product, brand and – most importantly – his or her own body.

There are aspects of H&M’s marketing that I’m a real fan of. Their winter/Christmas campaigns over the last two years have coupled different generations, emphasising family and friendship. It’s an approach that resonates with me – I especially love choosing outfits for those types of get-togethers: my extended family is so chic in all kinds of quirky ways; style is always appreciated. The ads are also a refreshing change from the “this-person-is-sleeping-with-me-because-I’m-wearing-this-top/dress/bag” approach present in most mainstream adverts that feature multiple people.

I also feel a certain amount of brand-loyalty: I remember an older cousin taking me to “Hennes” during a London stay with her family, and being so excited when a store opened in my hometown months later. In my early teens it was my first go-to for high street fashion, when I wasn’t raiding charity shops and street markets or customising hand-me-downs. And it’s still a shop I look to for certain staples.

It offends me that a company I’m willingly committed to has been so seemingly dismissive of the wider social implications of their actions. Just because a practice is commonplace doesn’t mean it’s intrinsically acceptable. The irony is that for something to become commonplace, it has to be accepted by the majority. It’s regrettable that the overt manipulation of images in advertising has become so institutionalised across an industry that, for its own survival, heavily relies on the people it belittles.

Why haven’t we said ‘not in my name’? And what would that look like?

For me, it starts with sending a few inconsequential letters to the mighty management at H&M. I’ll share their contents in a post here on Inklings soon…

*A supplement of The Guardian newspaper containing articles, columns, television and radio listings amongst other things.

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