H&M controversy: Why are brands still getting adverts with children wrong?

As retailer pulls back-to-school campaign after 'make heads turn' phrase, Sarah Maisey questions why howlers are still being made in 2024

An image from the Back to School campaign by H&M, which was called out this week for an inappropriate caption. Photo: H&M / Instagram
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H&M is in hot water again after complaints that one of its advertisements sexualised children.

Released in Australia as part of a regional back-to-school campaign, the image features two school-age girls posing against a pink background. The pair are both dressed in grey pinafore dresses, frilled socks and Mary Jane shoes, and are looking back at the camera over their shoulders. So far, so faultless.

The issue has arisen from the headline, which reads: “Make those heads turn in H&M’s Back to School fashion.”

With its allusion to catcalling and dressing for attention, “make heads turn” is an odd choice of phrase to pair with childhood. Shifting the onus on to the child for seeking out the adult gaze, it smacks of the insidious creepiness of Vladimir Nabokov's book Lolita.

Following the backlash, H&M pulled the image, saying: “We are deeply sorry for the offence this has caused and we are looking into how we present campaigns going forward.”

All this points back to bigger issues of how, even in the year 2024, companies are still making such howlers. The journey from first idea to finished advert is long and complicated, passing through dozens of people en route.

So how – once again, as with Zara – an image with inappropriate overtones has made it through this protracted process is anyone's guess.

Too often it seems those at the top are stuck in a dated “sex sells” mindset, and anything is acceptable in the endless quest to increase sales. To counter this, many organisations have made very public hirings of equality and diversity teams, yet the clangers continue ad nauseam.

As brands struggle to remain relevant to the TikTok generation, social boundaries are increasingly being challenged to try to hit that sweet spot: Going viral. When clumsily handled, however, these botched stabs at appearing cool alienate the very audience they hoped to attract by going viral for all the wrong reasons.

Many from the younger generations of digital natives are more clued up and aware of the pervasive sexism and racism around them – rejecting how older people have had to simply “suck it up” to be able to function. As this new guard forges a language for themselves and their lives, they are turning their back on the established order of things in favour of an online universe that has been built, largely, by their peers.

The sexual barrage that women face is very real. For most, the sanctity of childhood is all the more precious given what girls will have to deal with in later years.

H&M is originally from Sweden, a land that defines itself on its equal social standing of women and a culture of gender respect and empowerment, a fact that only makes this error more depressing.

Yet, sadly, the idea of sexualising schoolgirl is nothing new.

Nabakov wrote his disturbing masterpiece half a century ago, in 1955. Britney Spears was dressed in a school uniform and pigtails in 1998 for her song Hit Me Baby One More Time. Not only did this turn the singer, who was 16 at the time, into a Lolita-esque sex object, it also seemingly promoted domestic violence.

In 2014, American Apparel was accused of glorifying up-skirting – taking unauthorised photos underneath clothing – of schoolchildren in one of its ads, while in December 2022, Gucci drew flak for images of singer Harry Styles wearing a T-shirt with a teddy bear and standing next to a child-sized mattress. The images were pulled after it was pointed out that linking a grown man to a child's bed was not OK.

Late last year, Benetton had to withdraw an image that showed two young girls posing in their underwear, at the same time that Chinese retail platform Temu ran into trouble for an photo of a girl posing in a bikini. The list goes on.

The line between childhood and adulthood is important for many reasons. In 2016, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe passed resolution 2119, warning against “mass media, marketing campaigns, television programmes and everyday products [that] regularly over-sexualise children, particularly girls, by conveying images which portray women, men and in some cases even children, as sexual objects”.

No doubt some will cry “wokery” for this latest image to fall foul of shifting social codes, and say that “harmless banter” is being driven to extinction. But woke vigilance needs to continue if we are to protect our children from the worst of the world. Anyone up in arms that we are all now walking on eggshells for fear of offending anyone, remember the adage of walk a mile in another's moccasins.

Live a day as a teenage girl being leered at by men old enough to be her father. Spend some time running the gauntlet of catcalling and “uncles” who hug you a fraction too long. Think how it must feel being stared at and talked about, and made so aware of your own physicality that getting into crowded lifts is an uncomfortable experience.

Or perhaps imagine it is your young daughter in the H&M ad, seemingly inviting adult men to turn their heads to stare at her.

Whether we like to think about it or not, images such as these that try to normalise the sexualisation of children have wide-reaching repercussions, not least on the young trying to navigate the very adult world of sexual attention. They need and deserve our protection from the murky underbelly of society, where some actively look to exploit childish naivety.

It's not just harmless banter now, is it?

Updated: January 25, 2024, 8:07 AM