Here are the many reasons why Balenciaga has become public enemy no.1 these days.
Trigger warning: this article features discussions on child abuse
If you are attuned to the fashion world, you would have heard that Balenciaga has been canceled. This was a result of the problematic advertisements they released in November 2022. These ads featured imagery related to child sexual abuse, showed BDSM motifs in ads featuring children and a whole lot more.
But the situation didn’t unravel all at once, there were multiple separate missteps that landed Balenciaga into such a massive scandal. To make sense of everything, here is a detailed look at all the problematic aspects of advertisements, the public outcry surrounding them and how the situation has been addressed so far.
Balenciaga’s Gift Shop
On November 16, Balenciaga released a series of advertisements for the holiday season. These advertisements were a part of their Gift Shop Campaign, meant to showcase their newest products. Photographed by the documentary photographer Gabriele Galimberti, this campaign was fairly similar to Galimberti’s previous photo collection: Toy Stories. Toy Stories featured children from all over the world with their entire toy collection.
Similar to Toy Stories, Balenciaga’s advertising campaign also featured children. However, here the children were (as pictured above) surrounded by Balenciaga’s newest items. Sounds innocent enough, right? But if you take a closer look at the images in the advertisements, you will see that the items displayed are odd.
Observe the picture we have added above, and you’ll see a dog bowl with spikes on it, a dog leash, bear cans and wine glasses. None of these items is appropriate to be advertised by a child. But besides the weird items, what caught people’s attention were the teddy bears that the children were pictured with. These bears were wearing leather harnesses, spiked collars and fishnets (pictured below).
Soon after its release, the campaign started getting backlash on social media, with people calling for a boycott of the brand, saying that its ads sexualized children. In response, Balenciaga deflected blame. Galimberti, the photographer for the campaign, began receiving death threats and had to release his own statement about the issue. He said he didn’t have any input on the items placed inside the frame and just took pictures as is.
Balenciaga X Adidas Campaign
Even if the first campaign wasn’t an obvious oversight, when seen together with Balenciaga’s previous photo shoot, it becomes unexplainable. On November 3, Balenciaga released a series of pictures of celebrities in items from the company’s collab with Adidas. The background for these promotional pictures was offices and, again, at first glance, the images seemed normal.
But if you look closely (which people had definitely started doing since the Gift Shop controversy), there are problematic elements to them. One of the images from the campaign is the new Adidas X Balenciaga version of the Hourglass handbag (as pictured above). This handbag was photographed on a messy desk covered in all blank sheets of paper except one. The one sheet, which does have some writing on it discusses a Supreme Court case related to whether child sexual imagery falls under the purview of freedom of speech.
Besides this picture, there are other problematic motifs in the Balenciaga X Adidas campaign as well. One of the pictures featuring Isabelle Hubbert had a stack of books in the background. One of these books contains paintings of Michael Borremans, a Belgian painter whose work consisted of gruesome portrayals of toddlers.
The aftermath of the controversy
Following the Gift Shop campaign, Balenciaga responded by taking down all the pictures, saying that the teddy bears should not have been pictured with children. After the issues with the Balenciaga X Adidas photo shoot came to light, Balenciaga filed a case against the production company North Six, Inc. and set designer Nicholas Des Jardins and his company, which had worked on the campaign, for US$25 million. In their defense, the set designer’s company claimed that the items had been sourced from a prop house.
The case lacked validity because Balenciaga executives were present during the shoot and oversaw the props. The production company and the set designer also didn’t have inputs on which of the photos were finally selected for release. It is perhaps because of these reasons that the lawsuit was dropped on December 3, just a couple of days after being filed.
Balenciaga has also issued a second apology, saying that the company strongly condemns child abuse and that it takes responsibility for the series of grievous errors that have been made. But of course, people aren’t having it. Many have bashed the brand on social media, saying that taking responsibility doesn’t fix the issue.
So, what can we learn from this?
Besides the obvious lesson of not having problematic imagery in your advertisements, the Balenciaga scandal teaches business owners to be careful about every step of the marketing process. Nothing escapes the scrutiny of the public, and just one wrong move (although in Balenciaga’s case, it was several moves) can tarnish your reputation for good.
Make sure to take responsibility for your actions swiftly and show your customer base actionable changes that you are making to ensure that the mistake is never repeated and the damage done by it is reduced. Doing so should hopefully help you overcome the scandal. As far as Balenciaga is concerned, only time will tell whether the company will be able to recover from this mistake or not.
Header image courtesy of Wikimedia commons, all other images courtesy of Balenciaga’s website.