Advertising: The case of using white models only

The ad outside Bossini, Kigali. Jenny Ohlsson.

A few weeks ago, Bossini Kigali, located at Kigali Heights, found itself being called out on social media, by its shoppers for using predominantly white models and lack of diversity to sell its merchandise.

Swedish envoy to Rwanda, Jenny Ohlsson tweeted: “I can’t get over being in the middle of Africa and a big clothing store only has this huge add outside. Similar ones inside. Even in Sweden this would be strange and critical questions would be raised. After all, long gone are the days when all Swedes had the same colour. It’s 2018.”

Her tweet attracted a number of angry responses by other tweeps to which Bossini did not respond.

“If you can find models in Sweden that are diverse, I’m sure you can also find them for companies that work in Africa, there is no lack of black or coloured models.

I think it’s also about the value and what signal you send, how much you care and how important you think that your market audience is. It surprised and still provokes me a lot, especially since it is in this era. Even when we complained we thought they would pull it down but they didn’t,” Ohlsson further lamented when reached out for a comment.

The international fashion community has embraced (and are proud to show) models that represent the global reality. Models of all races, models with Vitiligo, models with Down-Syndrome and models with disabilities, can now be on some of the world’s most prestigious fashion adverts.

Why the company chose to have white models only is a question that some people were posing on social media and wanted the advert pulled down for being culturally insensitive.

Patience Mutesi, country director for Trademark East Africa, is one of the shoppers who is concerned about the images. She believes that besides advertising, the images at the store also have a strong message that they are putting across.

“When you’re advertising you have to use images that connect with your client. It doesn’t make sense to have all white models, they need to have images of people they are talking to. Otherwise, they are sending a really strong message with those images which I am very surprised that they have been able to continue that way for over two years,” she said.

Local stores claim that they use white mannequins because they can’t access Black ones. Sam Ngendahimana.

For a clothing store that is big and internationally recognised could have easily been noticed. A list of other local clothing stores and salons however, have innocently or deliberately used white models only on their posters.

For Mutesi, owners still need to be sensitised so they can put up images that are more relatable to their target audience.

“They need to change and put images of clients that they want to attract to their shops, I think that’s lazy marketing,” she said.

Liliane Umuhoza, a commercial model, has done photo shoots for several boutiques and bill boards around Kigali and believes that even for a small company with a very limited budget, it is important that they portray the diverse culture that the country has.

“They need to mix because it’s about the image and advertising being a big thing now, you cannot escape it. They need to be part of the diverse culture,” she said.

Doreen Umwali, a local fashion designer says that being an African society, using white models only is bad, and in her case she uses black and white models because she believes that it is about the message she puts out there but also because she has an international market and so has to cater for both.

However, for her it goes beyond just the models and has gone an extra mile to find black mannequins, which she says are quite inaccessible.

“I do African attire and so I was looking for a black mannequin, because I wanted to give my clients that connection. However, it’s very hard to get a black mannequin, actually you have to get a white one and paint it black, otherwise you have to order one from China,” she said.

Bossini, Kigali speaks out

The management at Bossini, Kigali explained to The Sunday Times that Bossini being a brand from Hong Kong, where white people are the predominant race, justifies why there are only white models on their store posters.

“We do not choose what we display, it’s a franchise agreement and that means we are given everything including artwork from Bossini in Hong Kong and we are not allowed to change anything. The poster was printed locally in Rwanda but I was allowed to edit what I was given in form of artwork and I have no control over that although in my opinion we should focus on the clothes that are being advertised,” explained the manager who requested anonymity.

On why they couldn’t respond to some of the complaints on social media, the manager explained that they were not authorised to comment publically but could only forward the complaints to their Headquarters in Hong Kong.

“I cannot just rush and tear it off because the window will look ugly but I have requested for another artwork which is a process, and I have forwarded some of the complaints for them to consider the negativity and look at what they can do and I hope that they are doing something,” he said.

He further clarified that for a franchise store that is international, stores worldwide, are supposed to look the same, including the artwork and that changing the image of the stores cannot be overnight.