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There’s Nothing Fashionable About Balenciaga’s Latest Ad Campaigns

Photo by Anders Photo via Adobe Stock Images

Published on January 12, 2023, at 8:45 a.m.
by Abby Walsh.

Globally renowned fashion brand Balenciaga has become the subject of public outcry after releasing advertisements depicting sexually explicit images of children as a part of its 2022 “Gift Collection” holiday campaign on Nov. 16.

The disturbing images showed young children clutching teddy bears while wearing bondage-style clothing and accessories. In a separate advertisement, court documents from the 2008 United States v. Williams decision could be seen. In the Williams case, the Supreme Court upheld the 2003 statute that outlawed the distribution of child pornography under the First Amendment.

The photographs ignited a wildfire of criticism, as social media users took to various platforms to express confusion and disgust with the fashion house’s decision to use such images.

Following the immense backlash, on Nov. 24, Balenciaga removed the images from its website and issued an apology statement on Instagram.

“We strongly condemn child abuse; it was never our intent to include it in our narrative. … 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,” the statement read.

From a PR standpoint, the brand’s decision to wait a full eight days before issuing an apology may be seen as its first mistake in regaining public trust. Given the sinister nature of the campaigns, it is unlikely that Balenciaga would’ve been able to control the narrative regardless of how soon it chose to make a statement. However, delaying its response not only conveys inaction but also a denial of responsibility, as well as an attitude of indifference to the subject matter at hand.

Photo by Sai via Adobe Stock Images

While the brand acknowledged the advertisements and their content, it failed to address Balenciaga’s responsibility as an internationally recognized company not to promote imagery that elicits child exploitation and endangerment. The statement underscored the notion that the content of the ads were made and distributed by third-party organizations, beyond the bandwidth of Balenciaga’s control. Despite the ads being outsourced externally, the overall ownership of each ad lies within the brand itself. When such egregious errors are made, it is imperative that a statement is issued with sincerity and profoundness, both of which seemed to be lacking in the brand’s apology.

On Nov. 25, Balenciaga filed a $25 million lawsuit against the set designer, Nicholas Des Jardins, and production company, North Six, for the “reckless” use of explicit imagery without the brand’s knowledge or consent. Consumers viewed the lawsuit as a diminishment of Balenciaga’s responsibility and a shifting of blame, as it is hard to believe that no one on Balenciaga’s creative or public relations team was not notified of the campaign prior to its release. The lawsuit was dropped on Dec. 2.

Criticism continued to circulate on the internet and in the public sphere. Several protests occurred across the country in major cities, with protestors boycotting Balenciaga stores and holding up signs denouncing the campaign’s use of child exploitation.

As the controversy continued, social media users urged Kim Kardashian to make a statement condemning the campaign and to end her partnership with Balenciaga all together. Kardashian was named the most recent ambassador for the brand and is frequently seen wearing Balenciaga apparel exclusively.

On Nov. 27, Kardashian tweeted, “As a mother of four, I have been shaken by the disturbing images. The safety of children must be held with the highest regard and any attempts to normalize child abuse of any kind should have no place in our society — period.”

Kardashian said that she was “re-evaluating” her partnership with the brand “basing it off their willingness to accept accountability for something that should have never happened.”

On the same day that the lawsuit was dropped, Demna Gvasalia, the creative director of Balenciaga, issued his own statement on Instagram.

“I want to personally apologize for the wrong artistic choice of concept for the gifting campaign with the kids and I take my responsibility,” Gvasalia wrote.

“I need to learn from this, listen and engage with child protection organizations to know how I can contribute and help on this terrible subject,” the designer added.

Photo by Robert via Adobe Stock Images

In cases where sensitive and severe subject matter is at the forefront, ownership and accountability are crucial for any company or organization looking to get out of a crisis. It is unclear whether or not the actions of Balenciaga have restored its reputation with key publics and stakeholders for the long term, as the scandal has left a permanent mark on its image. The fashion house has lost credibility with its consumer base as well as the fashion industry as a whole. The brand may have to start over with a new creative team if it hopes to ever get out of this, and the errors of Balenciaga should serve as an example to never exploit children for the sake of creativity.

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