In the past, I’ve argued for leniency when judging brands by their ad campaigns. But there is nothing accidental or unintentional about this scandal.
From concept to execution, a weak excuse that a third party ‘provided all props’ is not going to cut it.
A LITTLE BIT OF BACKGROUND
Balenciaga has always been a little…weird.
The Spanish Fashion House built its brand on pushing the boundaries of Avant-garde fashion and has made a lot of fans over the years by going left when everyone else was going right.
Shock factor is a part of their ethos, and often in high-fashion, sexual or fetishistic content is part of pushing boundaries.
But everything about their new ‘Gift Collection’ campaign is dotted with red flags that can’t be brushed off as a ‘series of grievous errors’.
THE GIFT COLLECTION CAMPAIGN
Balenciaga released its holiday ad campaign in November of this year and was almost immediately met with widespread backlash from long-time fans and outsiders alike.
The shoot featured young children holding teddy bear bags surrounded by bondage items and, in some cases, alcohol. The execution left many parents of young children incredibly disturbed and more than a little disgusted.
The concept took inspiration from award-winning National Geographic photographer Gabriele Galimberti’s “Toy Stories” collection, which featured children from all over the world standing in rooms with their toys.
How such an innocent concept went so horribly wrong with a team of people working to bring it to life is beyond me.
According to Galimberti, Balenciaga invited him to photograph for them in the same style as his original collection but wanted to provide different props for the set to give it a ‘punk’ feel.
THINGS GET WORSE
While the Gift Collection scandal was blowing up, a photo from a separate ad featuring a Balenciaga x Adidas hourglass purse in the Garde-Robe spring 2023 collection surfaced online and quickly added fuel to the fire.
Upon closer inspection, two bizarre details to the set added an extra layer of creepy to an already controversial ad campaign.
A document in one of the shots included a copy of a Supreme Court case, United States v. Williams, ruling that pornographic images featuring children do not count as freedom of speech.
A book used for set dressing happens to be Michaël Borremans controversial Fire from the Sun, which features gory depictions of young, naked children playing with decapitated hands and viscera.
How something like this could happen by coincidence in a single photoshoot is baffling. And back-to-back with the already disturbing Gift Collection campaign, it isn’t hard to read a message of support for child exploitation in the details provided.
By November 24th, Balenciaga issued two statements via Instagram, apologizing first for featuring children in the Gift Collection.
“We sincerely apologize for any offense our holiday campaign may have caused. Our plush bear bags should not have been featured with children in this campaign. We have immediately removed the campaign from all platforms.”
And then stated they would be taking legal action against the company that provided props for the set.
“We apologize for displaying unsettling documents in our campaign…We take this matter very seriously and are taking legal action against the parties responsible for creating the set and including unapproved items for our Spring 23 campaign photo shoot. We strongly condemn abuse of children in any form. We stand for children’s safety and well-being.”
While Balenciaga has wiped its Instagram clean and issued further apologies, I feel a fundamental part of the conversation is missing.
IT'S NOT ABOUT THE TEDDY BEARS
There are usually only two reasons an ad campaign blows up this spectacularly.
- A lack of diversity within the marketing team leads to tone-deaf takes on concepts that are easy to spot by anyone outside of the ‘bubble.’
- Sheer ignorance. (i.e. DiGiorno’s #whyIstayedblunder).
However, I don’t believe this is true for Balenciaga.
First of all, Dolls Kill has been successfully marketing BDSM teddy bears sans children for a while. So this is not a new concept in fashion.
Second of all. Balenciaga was not advertising BDSM-themed bears.
Galimberti stated in an interview the set dressing team had to dress the bears up in leather chokers, lacey thongs and other accessories for the shoot.
This suggests the BDSM theme was entirely intentional and not necessary to market the items being promoted in the Gift Collection.
Third of all, and this is a big one, it’s not really about the teddy bears at all.
Many successful ad campaigns have proven you can use children in ads that have adult themes without sexualizing them or creating uncomfortable narratives.
Condom commercials and this excellent ad from Liquid Death feature children in scenarios that allude to adult activities, but there is an emphasis on it being a joke that makes it enjoyable.
And from previous Balenciaga campaigns, it’s pretty apparent the brand knows how to portray humour in a way that aligns with its branding.
Yet they chose to portray unsmiling children alone in a room surrounded by clear allusions to bondage and alcohol consumption without any of the fun the brand is known for.
The unfortunate decorations in the Garde-Robe shoot are easy enough to hand-wave away as an unfortunate choice by the rental house.
(I do find it interesting Balenciaga dropped the $25 million lawsuit almost as quickly as they brought it up).
I find it hard to believe a major fashion house was not already using the kinds of controls they promise to use moving forward.
As a relatively young marketing company that produces ad campaigns for small businesses, we are intimately familiar with the approval process required before a set, models, art direction, and content are greenlit for production, let alone publishing.
Child exploitation is not a nuanced issue that requires diversity within a team to avoid bad optics in the same way problems of body positivity, sexism or racism might require additional oversight.
It should be incredibly obvious at this point to anybody, regardless of background, that it is not appropriate to put miserable-looking children in sexually suggestive situations to sell merchandise.
It isn’t fair to punish the photographers who shot these ads when the groundwork for concepts and their execution are all overseen by the creative team.
However, it is baffling that so many people involved in the production would overlook the deliberate narrative being created at every step in the process.
As someone who eats, breathes and sleeps marketing, I believe Balenciaga took a deliberate and calculated risk with this campaign.
And that risk may end up costing them their reputation, customer base and future—what a joke.