Looking at you, Zara: Why are fashion brands still getting ad campaigns so wrong?

Fast-fashion brand faces a boycott for images mirroring destruction in Gaza, but it is not the first to misread the public mood

A now-deleted image from Zara's latest campaign has been criticised for mirroring scenes of horrifying destruction in Gaza. Photo: Zara
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Spanish fast fashion brand Zara is facing a boycott for its latest advertising campaign, which features a model standing amid rubble, posing with what looks like a body wrapped in a shroud.

The images – created to sell clothes – feel uncomfortably close to the real-life tragedy unfolding in Gaza.

Social media is flooded with distressing scenes of maimed and injured civilians, while whole neighbourhoods have been wiped off the map. The sheer horror of the information coming out of Gaza, where the destruction is being documented in real-time, makes Zara's decision to go ahead with its latest campaign all the more depressing.

At best it is tone-deaf. Perhaps Zara shot its images before October 7 and the subsequent violence and destruction that has unfolded in Gaza. But the campaign was nevertheless approved for release to the public in the middle of the conflict.

For any brand to believe human devastation is a suitable theme for a fashion shoot is beyond comprehension. So the big question is how, in 2023, can this have been allowed to happen?

The fashion world has always courted controversy, with the link between fashion and real life running deep as it looks to reflect broader moods across society. The full-skirted excess of Christian Dior’s 1947 New Look, for example, can be seen as pushback against the austerity of the Second World War, while the mini skirt of the 1960s heralded new social freedoms for women.

Capturing these important social shifts is the role of fashion photography, as it looks to push boundaries and challenge norms. Working hand in hand with fashion design, it creates imagery that echoes the coming mood.

In the early 1990s, images of a young Kate Moss coincided with the rise of musical grunge, sparking an obsession with thinness dubbed “heroin chic”. The hedonism of that decade, meanwhile, was summed up by the original supermodels, Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell and Christie Turlington, dressed in head-to-toe Versace.

As it seeks to capture the zeitgeist, fashion photography skirts around topics deemed taboo and off-limits. In the late 1980s, Italian company Benetton began making deliberately provocative campaigns featuring, among others, death-row inmates, a murder victim, a dying Aids patient, and a priest and nun kissing.

Then-creative director Oliviero Tuscani explained his intention to stir things up, saying that advertising was the perfect medium to tackle unpleasant prejudice head-on. “Just advertising a product is a waste of communication,” he said.

In 2010, Vogue Italia raised eyebrows when it ran a fashion story inspired by a spill of crude oil that devastated the landscape and wildlife of the Gulf of Mexico. Shot by Steven Meisel – who has always flirted with difficult topics, including domestic abuse and murder – the images star Kristen McMenamy, the same model, incidentally, who appears in the recent Zara campaign.

Just last year, Balenciaga managed to offend its audience not once, but twice, after it released a campaign featuring a teddy bear – typically regarded as a children's toy – dressed in padlock necklaces and harnesses. A second image, starring Nicole Kidman, threw fuel on the fire when eagle-eyed customers noticed that a pile of papers in the image were legal documents pertaining to a child sexual abuse case.

The backlash was fast and brutal, exacerbated by the brand’s attempt to shift blame away from itself and on to the team who shot the images, as if it had not seen and approved every element.

In 2018, Italian luxury house Prada was forced to issue an apology and withdraw products from sale after pieces of its Pradamalia line were condemned for using blackface. Monkey-style characters with large red lips, the Otto figurines were deemed reminiscent of the 1930s American genre that saw white actors dress as black people for entertainment.

The lawsuit that followed saw Prada agree to create a scholarship for racial minorities across its ranks, roll out racial equity training and appoint a full-time diversity office, as well as obligating it to report to the NYC Human Rights Commission for two years.

While the fallout should have rung alarm bells across the industry, three months later, Gucci ran into trouble for almost the same reason. It was forced to withdraw a high-necked sweater designed to be worn half covering the face and decorated with blackface-style red lips.

In May the same year, the brand released a Sikh turban costing about $800. The piece drew condemnation from the Sikh community for monetising a religious head covering.

The ensuing backlash saw Gucci's then-chief executive Marco Bizzarri set up internal training to “increase inclusivity, diversity, participation and cultural awareness”, while then-creative director, Alessandro Michele, took “full accountability” for the “unintentional effects” of his designs.

In early 2018, Swedish fashion chain H&M was also forced to offer a public apology after it photographed a black child in a sweatshirt with the words “coolest monkey in the jungle”.

The same year, Italian house Dolce & Gabbana triggered a China-wide boycott of its products following the release of an online campaign that seemed to mock how Chinese people eat and pronounce foreign words.

Showing a model struggling to eat pasta with chopsticks – China invented noodles, the forerunner to pasta, over 4,000 years ago – the images were proclaimed as cliched and offensive by millions of Chinese consumers, causing Dolce & Gabbana products to be removed from shelves across the country, effectively shutting it out of a billion-dollar luxury market. Despite an apology from the designers, the fallout continues five years later.

Notable moments in society have inspired fashion and photography, and will continue to do so. What makes the mistakes listed above all the more depressing is that each one would have passed through a battery of different desks and departments before being exposed to the public.

From the advertising agency that came up with the idea and the brand headquarters that approved it, to the team tasked with shooting the final image, no one seems to have stood up and said: “Perhaps this isn't such a great idea after all.”

Either they weren't listened to, or simply no one flagged anything as problematic or racist, while brands scrabbling to hit that zeitgeist sweet spot signed off images and ideas that are at best tone-deaf and at worst exploitative.

The road from first idea to final product is long and complex, meaning none of these mistakes are knee-jerk, raising the question that if these were the ideas allowed to filter through to the public, what were the ones that were blocked?

This is an unacceptable failing from a sector that prides itself as setting the pulse we all follow.

Zara is not alone in falling foul over Gaza. British retailer Marks & Spencer has been criticised for its festive advert, which shows traditional paper hats being burnt in a fireplace. Accompanied with the caption, “This Christmas, do only what you love”, it was deemed offensive after the colours of the hats were seen to match those of the Palestinian flag.

M&S withdrew the images and apologised, explaining they were created before the latest round of hostilities. With red, green and silver or white the traditional colours of festive hats, perhaps this one is open to interpretation.

Perhaps Zara, too, shot its images before the conflict started, but the issue is that the images released this week – depicting rubble, mannequins in body bags and dismembered statues – were not pulled.

In a situation where we are running out of words to describe the scale of the human suffering unfolding in front of us, only three words remain for Zara and its cynical ploy to be edgy: Shame on you.

Updated: December 12, 2023, 11:32 AM