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Reuters/Susana Vera
REPUTATION MATTERS

H&M just found out why 140 characters is not enough for a conversation about race

By Sibusiso Tshabalala

Cape Town, South Africa

Less than a month after launching its brand in South Africa, H&M—the Swedish-headquartered, multinational fast-fashion retailer—is already grabbing headlines here for the wrong reasons.

Earlier this week, a South African twitter user who had visited the new H&M store in Cape Town asked why H&M had a dearth of black models in its advertising.

That gentle critique was nothing compared to what the company faced after it sent back this four-part response, with the order indicated by the notations (“1/4,” “2/4,” etc.) at the end of each tweet:

Presumably, the company was just trying to lay out its approach to marketing overall, starting with the premise that its marketing has impact and ought to convey a positive image, and ending with the idea that the variety of models it uses is, in fact, an issue that gets discussed internally.

But that’s not how everyone interpreted it.

H&M attempted to clean up the mess.

But a #BoycottHMRacists hashtag already has been born.

This was probably not the entrance H&M was hoping for when it came to South Africa. (In addition to the Cape Town location, it also recently opened a store in Johannesburg.) But it’s a good reminder that messages on social media can be easily misconstrued—especially when those messages touch on the topic of race, and especially when they involve South Africa, which has a history of race relations more fraught than most.

The 140-character limit on Twitter didn’t help the company’s cause. It’s hard to be concise when addressing a topic like this, but by delivering a response piecemeal, the company took on the risk that any one of its reply tweets might be seen without the context provided by the others, multiplying the chances that its message might be misconstrued.

As H&M works to contain the fallout, it might also keep in mind the issue that triggered it all: The lack of diversity in the ads at its South African stores is not sitting well with at least some South African shoppers—and the customer who first tweeted about it still hasn’t gotten a satisfying answer to her query.