- The UK has one of the world’s highest rates of emergency hospitalisation due to recreational drug use.
- 11.7% of black adults used drugs in 2016-17, the highest of any ethnic group in the UK.
- Almost half of all young people convicted of dealing in London are black, often mixed in with gang-related crime.
- 56 deaths in 4 months have now been reported, in London’s recent wave of killings.
- Black youth from deprived neighbourhoods are the primary victims of gang violence.
With these statistics as the backdrop, last week global sports brand Puma decided to hold a ‘drug dealing themed’ house party, in collaboration with JD Sports. House of Hustle: #runthestreets was held in a four-storey building designed with a ‘rundown’ vibe — think graffiti, boarded windows, and mattresses. It was designed to be a haven for ‘hustlers’: musicians, tattoo artists and more, lapping up the aesthetics. Gimmicks allegedly included shoe boxes of fake £50 notes and ‘trap phones’, pre-loaded with the message “Yo G what u sayin today? Pass tru the House of Hustle”. The cringe-factor alone should have destroyed this idea.
On the surface, ‘House of Hustle’ is simply a glamorisation of drugs taken one step too far. This isn’t remotely novel — pop culture has been awash with implicit or open drug use for years. But in London’s current climate it’s a slap-in-the-face.
Remember that this party was held in a ‘trap house’ in Soho, which, with an average house price of £1.3-1.5m is one of London’s most affluent areas. You are more likely to find avocado and poached egg on rye than a trap house, and middle class white millennials than gang culture — who of course are significantly less likely to be searched or prosecuted for drug possession. What we’re being presented with — again — is cultural appropriation: this time of privileged influencers appropriating a class and race-disproportionate struggle that devastates lives and communities. On the night in question, six teenagers were stabbed in London’s continued violence, yet the invitees of Puma x JD’s elite party got to enjoy ‘gang culture’ in a safe, ego-stroking environment. It’s like something from The Purge, and it’s sickening.
Wake up, middle-class Britain. The council estate isn’t an aesthetic for your wild new experiences. This isn’t your next gap year destination.
This latest corporation scandal comes in the midst of a long line of controversies that took social media by storm. Who could forget the backlash against Pepsi for that Kendall Jenner protest advert? H&M’s casually racist “coolest monkey in the jungle” photo? Or the ‘boycott’ of L’Oréal, accused of using Munroe Bergdorf as their token transgender model and then dropping her for speaking out against white supremacy?
The first time it seemed like a blunder, for which a hasty delete and couple of lines on social media were sufficient. The second raised concerns about a lack of diversity in marketing: maybe every member in the board meeting was just too socially ignorant to realise the impact of their decisions. At this point, however, it would be naive and frankly insulting to play House of Hustle off as a simple faux pas. It must be impossible to be so ignorant and insensitive in 2018; to not see how your actions will resonate through society — unless perhaps the boardrooms of both brands mirror the UK Cabinet. The only alternative, then, is that this was intentional.
“It’s time for us to realise that these are no longer accidents, and make corporations realise that they can no longer capitalise on humiliation.”
As the saying goes, “no publicity is bad publicity”, and controversy is the new favourite marketing scheme. Remember that Puma lagged behind its biggest competitors last year, and ended March with a pledge to 10% annual sales growth until 2022 — aided by the recruitment of household names such as Big Sean, The Weeknd, Rihanna and Selena Gomez. What better way to be noticed these days, than to create a race-class divide between ’the-struggle’-to-rebel-against-mummy-and-daddy London, and ‘woke Twitter’? Their wildest dreams will only be realised if Stormzy gets wind and is as livid as the rest of us. Black anger is a new, fun social currency, and global corporations are learning to capitalise on it… Then quickly ease their journey by hiring a new ‘diversity leader’.
And why do these Controversy Campaigns work so well? Simply, because the black pound doesn’t follow through. Without meaning to sound chastising or condescending, I wonder how many people will boycott Puma or JD, long enough to hold them accountable for such a distasteful show. So many of us do it — a couple of angry tweets, a “can you believe it” in the group chat, and then back to the newest collection within a year. Yet in March, Snapchat lost $800m in days, following Rihanna’s accusation of the app ‘intentionally shaming’ domestic violence victims, and back in February a whopping £1bn because Kylie Jenner was ‘over it’ — which shows that consumer power does exist, if properly collectivised.
The question, then, is how ‘influencers’ will react to this latest campaign — specifically Puma’s biggest faces. The Weeknd’s PUMA XO Spring/Summer Collection dropped on March 8: he very publicly cut ties with H&M over their ‘coolest monkey’ jumper, so it will be interesting to see whether his social justice spirit plays out again. Rihanna has near-enough perfected her social responsibility brand lately — in domestic violence awareness, an all-inclusive beauty line and recent Humanitarian of the Year Award — so how will this stretch to threatening her Fenty x Puma collab?
Simply put, 2018 has shown us yet another example of a marketing campaign that should have been quickly shut down with a “what a stupid idea, Andrew” in the boardroom. It’s time for us to realise that these are no longer accidents, and make corporations realise that they can no longer capitalise on humiliation.