Yes, I Am Offended by GapKids’ Ad

But maybe not for the reason you think. First, here’s the controversy:

GapKids controversial ad

The current ad causing controversy

As Adweek recently reported in their article, “Gap Has Apologized for This GapKids Ad, but Did It Need To?” many people are taking issue with the smaller black child being used as a prop by the taller white child.  

Then there is this older GapKids ad, which shows a taller black child leaning on a smaller white child.

Gap Girl ad--with attitude

Older Gap Girl ad

So, why the big difference in reaction?

As someone I met on Facebook said:

Do black people have a long history of subjugating white people and treating them as objects? No?
There’s the difference.

Offensiveness is subjective, so what do you do?

Here’s the thing: Facebook person has a great point. While I agree that her statement is true, I don’t think that was the intent of the photographer with the ad. I’m actually offended for a different reason, which I’ll get to in a bit.

I have worked in marketing and advertising for many years, and I have heard complaints about ad photos that I never would have picked up on in looking at them. In fact, I wish that I still had some of those photos so I could share my favorite.

Ball with handles that kids sit on and bounceOur team created an insurance brochure that showed a kid bouncing on one of these bouncey balls that kids sit on and bounce up and down with. The way the photo was cropped, you didn’t really see the ball, but you saw a smiling kid holding the rubber handle.

A customer complained and said it was too sexual.


Crazy, right?

Not necessarily. This is one of the hard parts of being a writer, designer or photographer. Before anything goes to print, our job is to figure out what kinds of reactions people will have to the advertising material. In some cases, it’s very easy to see how some people might be offended or take something the wrong way (or way not intended).

We make sure passengers in cars have seatbelts on and riders of bikes or motorcycles have helmets on because we know if we don’t, entire organizations could have problems with our material and that’s not a good thing.

Given the state of race relations in our country, all creatives and execs involved in these decisions should have their radar up for ads just like the GapKids one. Do I think it’s offensive racially? No. But my no means “not to me.”

Do other people find it offensive? Yes. And I totally get their point of view–my Facebook acquaintance summed it up pretty well. (You can also see more comments in the Adweek article I linked to above.)

You should ask yourself and your team two questions before deciding on an ad–copy and image:

  1. Could people find this offensive?
  2. How many people could be offended by it?

Honestly, sometimes it’s worth the risk, especially depending on the product. In the GapKids case, it really wasn’t worth the risk. But there’s more to this case than just race.

The real problem with the GapKids ad

It’s a horrible photo!

Both Gap ads as aboveCompare the two ads. The kids on the right, in the older ad, not only are more multicultural, but they seem to be having fun with each other. It looks like this could be a real group of friends, and the arm resting on the one girl’s head looks completely relaxed and natural, while the smaller girl is standing in a powerful looking position.

The kids on the left, in the newer ad, look like they were thrown together for this photo shoot. The only one really having fun is the one who is upside-down. There’s no connection in this image. The tall girl in the middle looks completely uncomfortable, which no doubt adds to the racial connotation. Both girls in the middle look bored. As a creative person, this is what offends me.

Why Gap chose this shot is a mystery.

They have this fantastic kids campaign focused on empowering and celebrating girls, highlighting girls with unique skills and style. Someone should have noticed that the above photo doesn’t hold the same energy.

GapKids promotion with Ellen D. Need more proof? This video tells you all you need to know about why the current, boring, controversial ad should never have been part of the campaign:

It rocks, right?

GapKids could’ve saved themselves some trouble by taking a bit more time to compare the current ad with the rest of the campaign. If that had happened, we would not be having this discussion.