The photo above was part of a recent ad campaign for Gap Kids. The campaign, which launched last week, is in collaboration with Ellen DeGeneres’ lifestyle brand ED. Gap is donating $250,000 to the charity Girls Inc. to support its economic literacy program.
Criticism erupted on social media and elsewhere that the ad gave a message of “passive racism.”
Nathalie Yves Gaulthier, founder of Le Petit Cirque, the youth performance group whose members are seen in the ad, tried to explain, saying in part:
“The child in the ad is not an ‘armrest,’ she’s the other girl’s little sister. They are a very close family. The child is a very young (junior) member with Le Petit Cirque, a humanitarian cirque company, and therefore a wee shyer than the more seasoned older outgoing girls. Our company is deeply saddened by some people misconstruing this as racist, and are keeping the children out if this at the moment to protect their beautiful feelings , but we are extremely supportive of dialogue in our country to move past any racial barriers…”
Gap decided that discretion was the better part of valor, and replaced the image in the campaign. It apologized to critics last week, saying:
“As a brand with a proud 46-year history of championing diversity and inclusivity, we appreciate the conversation that has taken place and are sorry to anyone we’ve offended. This GapKids campaign highlights true stories of talented girls who are celebrating creative self-expression and sharing their messages of empowerment. We are replacing the image with a different shot from the campaign, which encourages girls (and boys) everywhere to be themselves and feel pride in what makes them unique.”
It’s a non-apology apology, of course, a clear #8 on the Ethics Alarms Apology Scale:
“A forced apology for a rightful or legitimate act, in capitulation to bullying, fear, threats, desperation or other coercion.”
Corporations are more or less forced to capitulate to “gotcha!” accusations like this, because there is no up-side in fighting them, and the companies’ job is to make money while alienating as few people as possible. If Social Justice Warriors and aggressive race-baiters are determined to claim that an ad intentionally denigrates a black child as subordinate to white children, then that message will overwhelm the ad no matter what is said or seen.
This is a rare case where I would say that a non-apology apology is ethical and indeed preferable to grovelling for forgiveness. Gap decided to say, in essence, “OK, you win. We don’t think there is anything wrong with the add other than the fact that some people are upset by it, and while that may be their problem and not ours or due to any real problem with the ad, we don’t want to upset anyone.”
Wonderfully, an earlier ad from last year for the campaign didn’t cause a ripple:
Neither ad is racist, of course, not in intent, not in message. Some people who are determined to make communication impossible have conditioned themselves to see it as racist and literally lie in wait to attack, hoping, as with all power plays involving imagined racial grievances, to bend others to their will, and to acquire power over the free expression, including artistic expression, of others.
Was it an inappropriate image for the ad? Yes, because we are all on notice that those reflex “gotcha!” race baiting social justice warriors—social justice muggers is a better description–-are out there. Thus Gap Kids was careless and negligent, resulting in innocent kids, whose complete unawareness and lack of interest in their various colors should be the objective of society, not a target of critics, were labeled as “racially insensitive,” which is bad, when they really were just race-blind, which is marvelous.
A society that sees no difference between those two images is the one that we should be striving for. That society is the one that the critics of the recent ad are trying to prevent, and doing a damn good job at it.
How can that possibly be ethical, good, desirable, rational, responsible, or right?