This GapKids ad, posted to Twitter on Saturday, ignited claims of passive racism from some viewers, who objected to what they characterized as a black girl being used as an armrest by a white girl.
This particular tweet storm was notable also for the backlash to the blacklash, with lots of other observers saying the racism claim was a wild overreaction. These two tweets nicely sum up the opinions of both sides:
— Fatima La'Juan Muse (@TheTherapyDiva) April 2, 2016
— Roger (@Roger247) April 3, 2016
Gap, meanwhile, seems to have admitted some culpability by issuing an apology to the media which reads: "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."
The brand adds: "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."
However, as of this writing, the image has not been removed from Twitter.
The sensitivity around the photo was nicely summarized by Zeba Blay, writing in the Huffington Post, who didn't personally find the image racist but is empathetic to those who were angered by it.
"It's a shame that these four little girls have been caught in the crosshairs of this heated debate, but the fact that so many people have protested the ad speaks to a reality that cannot be ignored," she writes. The reality is that there are so few positive, powerful representations of black women and especially black girls out there that, frankly, it's unsurprising that the photo would touch a nerve."
Meanwhile, Twitter user @MatthewACherry dug up an older Gap ad (see below) that shows the opposite scenario—a black girl resting her arm on the head of a white girl, in almost exactly the same pose. "Does the @GapKids pic on the left make the pic on the right okay? Let's debate," he wrote.
The four kids in the new ad are part of a cirque troupe called Le PeTiT CiRqUe, and the ad is part of a joint campaign between Gap and Ellen DeGeneres's ED brand. DeGeneres interviews the girls in the video below—which is, perhaps coincidentally, also a little odd. The black girl doesn't speak at all, and generally seems glum throughout the video.
There are surely perfectly innocuous reasons for this. But taken together, the photo and video are a reminder of how easily ad imagery can be met with negative interpretations—and how some better editing might save plenty of headaches at launch.