Recently, Balenciaga released their new holiday ad campaign, featuring children styled with bears wearing bondage gear, empty wine glasses, and other disturbing objects. The brand came under scrutiny for the inappropriateness of their ad and many social media commentators deemed the brand to be promoting paedophilia and child pornography which also contained other disturbing pieces in the background of the ad. Jamey Heron-Waterhouse discusses last month’s scandal.
One of these disturbing finds was from the Spring/Summer 2023 ad with Adidas, where an advertisement showcased copies of what seemed to be the Supreme Court case, United States v. Williams, a case that upheld the increased federal protections against child pornography.
Many found this campaign disturbing, for exmaple one right wing Twitter user stating: ‘BALENCIAGA should never be forgiven ever. Their kids campaign has dozens of sick references that are so obvious. So many dark symbolism. Truly unforgivable and criminal. Balenciagas [sic] executives must be held accountable! #balenciaga #BalenciagaGate #BalenciagaGroomers’
Balenciaga had issued an apology on their Instagram story, claiming, “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 photoshoot. We strongly condemn abuse of children in any form. We stand for children’s safety and well-being.”
This “legal action” seemed to be fruitless, as the lawsuit was dropped, though the photographer Gabriele Galimberti released a statement in his own defence: “I am not in a position to comment on Balenciaga’s choices, but I must stress that I was not entitled in whatsoever manner to neither chose the products, nor the models, nor the combination of the same,” he wrote. “As a photographer, I was only and solely requested to light the given scene, and take the shots according to my signature style.”
Since the uproar of the campaign, people have protested outside of Balenciaga stores, and even vandalised the stores with the phrases ‘paedophiles’ and ‘children r not sexual’
The photo series that made Balenciaga choose Galimberti for their campaign was Toy Stories, a series in which children are photographed ‘with their most prized possessions: their toys’. This is the ‘signature style’ that Galimberti refers to in his defence statement. In the case of Toy Stories, the children were not advertising their toys, the things they use on a regular basis to bring them joy, and items that were of importance to them.
The products that Balenciaga was trying to sell failed to resonate with the theme of the campaign. So, it leads us to question whether Balenciaga’s campaign was suggesting that these bondage gear items are children’s toys. Was Galimberti as a photographer responsible for not stopping a seemingly obvious inappropriate campaign?
The designer Demna appears to have shown his regret for the bears in the campaign, posting an apology on his Instagram claiming ‘I take my responsibility. It was inappropriate to have kids promote objects that had nothing to do with them’, evidencing the misuse of Galimberti’s Toy Stories photo series.
Cedric Charbit, the president and CEO of Balenciaga had also issued a statement on Instagram in which he states that Balenciaga has made a donation to grants that ‘help make a difference in protecting children’, attempting to make amends for their harmful campaign. But was this enough?
Neither Charbit nor Demna mentioned the documents from the Adidas campaign that seem to reference the federal protections against child pornography.
Many have also condemned celebrities such as Kim Kardashian who have not cut ties with Balenciaga following their disturbing campaign, like one twitter user who commented ‘when will you denounce Balenciaga’ under one of Kim’s tweets. Others have speculated that Kim Kardashian knows about the inappropriate relationship between Balenciaga’s pieces and children and has not objected to it, with another user replying ‘Well considering Kim dressed North, her child, in #Balenciaga S&M Gimp mask, I wouldn’t expect Kim to do anything’.
Since the uproar of the campaign, people have protested outside of Balenciaga stores, and even vandalised the stores with the phrases ‘paedophiles’ and ‘children r not sexual’.
The real sufferers of this campaign are the children who have been associated and photographed holding sexual and inappropriate objects. It is important not to forget who this disturbing campaign actually harmed.
With an expectation of children being granted respect, and avoiding sexualisation in the fashion industry, one can hope that we shall all be more vigilant and challenge such issues in the future, learning from this grave error by Balenciaga.
Jamey Heron Waterhouse
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