We like it when people get sick of waiting for change to happen, because then, they often make the change themselves.
This is the case for Torny Hesle and Ingrid Lea, a pair of Norwegian mothers who work as creatives at The Oslo Company. Fed up with the subtle stereotypes constantly being imposed upon their children, they decided to take on at least one prevalent Goliath—H&M.
Like the majority of retailers, H&M separates children’s goods by gender, culling your interests before you’re old enough to realize you’ve been had: Girls get shiny, saucy, glittery stuff. Boys get aspirational, action-oriented stuff in all shades of bland. Why can’t boys enjoy a sequined star? Why can’t girls want to be astronauts?
For no good reason, that’s why.
So Hesle and Lea took matters into their own hands. They bought a bunch of children’s clothes at H&M, then gathered a team of professionals—and lots of real kids!—to make their own campaign: “Just Kids.”
This is the joyful, richly diverse result of that.
In 2016, H&M released a glorious ad that subverted a sexist classic, Tom Jones’ “She’s a Lady,” and turned it into an empowering anthem for women of all stripes.
It was awesome—even if, as writer Kristina Monllos noted at the time, “showing women as they are shouldn’t be a feminist notion.” (This is true … but it’s probably really good news that, today, that ad doesn’t even approach our ever-rising sense of “women as they are.”)
And last week, H&M was called to order for a callous act of casual racism—using a young black child to model a sweatshirt marked “Coolest monkey in the jungle.” Good job, everybody!
You can’t judge the entirety of a brand by two ads, years apart. But all this is to say H&M, like many retailers of its size and influence, finds itself in conflict: Our culture’s values are changing nearly as quickly as we can switch tabs. I’d like to say they’re changing for the better, when you take the long view. But to what degree is a global retailer responsible for sharing—and in its advertising, rigorously reflecting—our moral high ground?
(Benetton would argue it is always and inescapably responsible.)
I don’t personally think any brand, of any size, has a duty to mirror whom it believes we are or aspire to be. On the other hand, it will always finish by reflecting exactly who it is—which is a far more meaningful act.
H&M may not know where it stands on the notion of gender equality. Maybe the question is complicated, because it’s a fashionable but neutral presence in so many places—places that don’t share the same norms, at least not at the same speed.
But like us normal folk, every day it’s got a shot at better expressing who it is, with hundreds of thousands of decisions, large and small, visible or not, iterating in the direction of a full picture that hopefully adds up to more than just higher yearly margins.
This is one such moment.
Hesle and Lea have availed lots of handy downloadable assets on JustKidsCampaign.com, which H&M is free to use. (For the creators, this is more about their children’s future than profits.) Since the video’s launch this week, it’s generated over 264,000 views and 3,419 shares on Hesle’s Facebook page alone.
H&M doesn’t have to use the campaign. But it can learn from it.
See photos from the campaign below.