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Communicate Levant | Advertising, marketing, public relations and media in the Arab world and beyond

H&M + Hassan Nasrallah, a mistake that could have been avoided?


H&M + Hassan Nasrallah, a mistake that could have been avoided?

A few days ago, the Lebanese online world was set ablaze (see here, here and here for example) by a new H&M Man social campaign showing Uruguayan DJ Mateo Milburn reading a newspaper – in Spanish, a detail worth highlighting. Visible on the first page of the paper, a picture of Hassan Nasrallah. This mishap, resulting probably from the negligence/ignorance of the famous clothing label and/or its Uruguayan production team not aware of Lebanese sensitivities, caused a local shitstorm.

It’s not H&M’s first blunder. You probably recall the monkey hoodie scandal from 2018, when the Swedish label got a black child model wearing a hoodie saying “Coolest monkey in the jungle”. Ouch. H&M apologized profusely.

This time again, the brand apologized, removing the controversial part on some platforms and even the full ad on others, despite the fact that, we can safely assume, no harm was done and no specific propaganda was intended.

However, the incident illustrates how working in a globally-connected online world makes it difficult for brands to control their message. To understand how such mistakes can be, and usually are avoided when working with foreign teams not necessarily on top of Lebanese issues, we asked industry professionals. Here is what they had to say:

Elie Fahed, filmmaker/director 

Nothing goes in front of my lense that I don’t know about or am not familiar with. This is why research is key to avoid any issues and why I would definitely have done some research prior to the shoot – especially if a media, be it a newspaper, a magazine, a cellphone or a website, appears in the ad.

For example, once, we had a TVC to shoot for a bank and we wanted to show the model browsing from one website to the bank’s website. We had a hard time choosing the first website without offending anyone or being misperceived as picking one site over another; we looked for music, pop culture, etc… Our solution? We created a website from scratch with stock images to avoid taking any risk.

Maybe [this team] was not exposed much to what happens in our region. They could have grabbed today’s newspaper and shot it; it could have been [Nasrallah’s] photograph or Queen Elisabeth’s. People would have made a hype out of any popular face that appeared in the ad. Everything around us is a reflection of our culture.

Having said that, Nasrallah is a public figure after all, on a public media. Whether we realize this or not, Nasrallah’s photo appearing in a shoot abroad created a debate, and today maybe this is what matters most.

Mounah Saliba, director of photography

What is art, in all its forms, other than a noble medium to send hidden messages? But in order to avoid clashes and headaches, we need to pay attention to all the tiny details that provoke them.

As a director of photography, it’s in my duty to point to any form, color or symbol in my frame that may carry a specific negative connotation, that may not be decent or appropriate to some people. 

In order to do so, it is very important to be aware and knowledgeable of all the ethical limits of the “target” I’m sharing my work with. 

We live in a highly critical, political, sociological and religious environment, and we need to keep that in mind throughout the process of the production, from the idea to the concept, the storyboard, the shoot, and post-production.

The H&M issue was a misstep, maybe a lack of awareness. In my opinion, no harm was done whatsoever, and in this case, I won’t judge it as a hidden message to anything. It’s simply a man reading a newspaper on which all international players make the front page

Emilio El Zyr, branding consultant

As a special effects supervisor and post-production specialist, I’ve been involved in countless video- and still-shoots for FMCG brands around the region; every once in a while, similar cultural nuances tend to be missed.

In such cases, there should be a multi-layered screening process in place, starting with the pre-production phase: a specialist from the target market should be included in the planning in order to avoid a mistake that could cost the cancellation of the entire campaign. Then, a local recruit should be present on the shoot to monitor potential cultural misrepresentations. The next layer should be the post-production/retouching team acting as a second gateway to catch errors overlooked by the production team on set. The last layer is the client representative that should be present on the shoot, as well as in the post-production phase. The client representative should have a vigilant eye, know more about cultural taboos and sign a waiver releasing the agency of any cultural non-technical mistakes that might arise.

I think H&M used its international production team to conduct the shoot, who were culturally unaware of the significance of the public figure displayed. Once the artwork was sent to the region, the media representative of H&M Lebanon either deemed it harmless or simply did not do their job. In both cases, these errors are unacceptable, and I am certain that within the Lebanese context and after the huge monetary loss for H&M, no one lost sleep over this mishap. There is no such thing as bad publicity.

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