By Bailey Calfee
On December 8, fast fashion behemoth Zara released a campaign for its higher-end Atelier line.
Entitled The Jacket, the work was meant to evoke the messy interior of a sculptor’s studio, complete with unfinished life-size human sculptures and broken- down plaster building materials.
Instead, the imagery was perceived by many as egregiously reminiscent of images of suffering Palestinians released in the past few months as the war in Gaza wears on.
In particular, one image shows the star of the campaign, model Kristen McMenamy, holding what looks to be a mannequin wrapped in a white tarp.
According to resounding feedback on social media, many felt the concept looked eerily reminiscent of the wrapped bodies of Gazans killed during the war.
Other images seem to show models, meant to be dressed as half-finished sculptures, also wrapped in white tarps. The campaign was shot by esteemed fashion photographer Tim Walker, whose distinct style has landed him several art exhibitions and countless high-profile cover shoots for magazines like Vogue.
The controversy calls into question how the campaign made it to launch, and whether consumers can be expected to divorce advertising from the world around them.
Zara did not respond to a request for comment.
Did Zara see the resemblance?
Although the entire scene, including the dusty debris from building materials, has been called into question for its resemblance to the destruction in Gaza, the mannequins and models wrapped in tarps bear the brunt of the outrage. In Muslim tradition, the bodies of the dead are fully wrapped in white cloth or plastic tarps, and much imagery from the region shows survivors holding and crying over the bodies of their loved ones and children shrouded in white.
“Honestly, I gasped when I first saw it,” said Ashley Cooksley, North America CEO at The Social Element, of Zara’s campaign. Manfred Abraham, CEO at consultancy Yonder, said the team at Zara may have overlooked the similarities between the campaign and images from Gaza. “When you’re deeply involved from the inception of an idea to its execution, you tend to focus on the conceptual aspect and may overlook the potential interpretations,” he said.
Still, Leila Fataar, founder, CEO and CSO at agency Platform13 and former global director of PR and social at Adidas, said she “can’t imagine a fashion company not having had any visual on [the war] at all.”
People in the fashion industry “know what's happening on social, because the job is to find trends,” she added. And when it comes to images of the war in Gaza, “you don’t even have to search for it — it’s on your feed, it’s in the news. It’s pervasive; the conversations are live, polarizing, global.”
Fataar added that the campaign’s release felt “really tone-deaf ” and showed that Zara had not adequately “read the room.” She said, “I look at it now and I still cannot imagine the decision” to release the campaign.
Who was in the room?
Zara swiftly pulled the campaign on Tuesday after the controversy erupted, and issued a statement expressing “regret” that “some customers felt offended” by the imagery. The statement also clarified that the campaign was conceived in July and photographed in September, therefore any perceived similarities with the war in Gaza were not intentional.
However, Cooksley points out that “agencies and brands are always planning ahead — sometimes years in advance — but that doesn’t mean that whatever we decide or whatever direction we chose previously can’t flex.” “All businesses should know that a campaign conceived with good intentions in July can take an unexpected turn when released just a few months later,” added Abraham.
If no one on Zara’s internal team noticed the visual similarities between their campaign and the destruction in Gaza, both Fataar and Cooksley posited that could reflect a potential lack of diversity either on the team or among those with sway.
“There was clearly a point of view — possibly even knowledge of what’s happening — missing in the room when this campaign was given the green light for a December launch,” said Cooksley. “Someone could have questioned or suggested, ‘This might not be the right time for this given the broader world context,’ but that didn’t happen — or worse, someone did raise it, and they weren’t listened to.”
Fataar added that a lack of diversity limits the viewpoints brought to the table. “Where you grew up, what impacted you and what impacted your community impacts and shapes your worldview,” she said. “If everyone has the same view, then you’re not seeing the rest of the world.”
For example, a Muslim person would likely have noticed the similarities between the mannequins wrapped in white and their burial traditions.
“If you want to be a global player, which Zara is, then you need to make sure that internally you have diversity of thought and knowledge,” said Fataar.
Advertising exists in context
Despite clarifying that the campaign was not intended to evoke imagery of Gaza, Zara moved forward with releasing it in the midst of an ongoing global conversation about the humanitarian crisis unfolding there.
“The bit that sits hard with me is the decision to put this out right bang center in the middle of this conversation,” said Fataar, adding that she recognized “it probably was a pretty expensive campaign.”
To Cooksley, “whether the intention was there or not doesn’t matter.” Even if Zara did not mean to evoke the crisis in Gaza, “thousands of eyes across the globe did see exactly that and ended up interpreting the images as something hurtful and damaging, both to the global situation and the brand.” Zara’s statement in response to the backlash spoke more about the campaign’s intent than its impact, which put the “responsibility for hurt feelings on the way consumers perceived it, rather than fully taking responsibility,” she added.
It’s a stark reminder for brands that advertising doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and people interpret it within a broader context.
Zara — which has not issued any statements about the war in Gaza or the Oct. 7 Hamas attack — noted that consumers “felt offended” because they “saw in [the images] something far from what was intended when they were created.”
Nevertheless, a consumer’s lived experience informs the way they interact with brands. Plus, consumers are often seeing advertising in their social media feeds, alongside news about ongoing world events, war-related or otherwise.
“Advertisers cannot expect anyone to separate world events from advertising,” said Cooksley. “Context is everything.” According to Abraham, Zara’s statement also reflected a lack of awareness of its audience’s values. “Characterizing this as a 'misunderstanding' absolves Zara of the responsibility to truly comprehend their audience, the mood of the nation and the wider context in which they are operating,” he said.
And even as brands intentionally pull back from publicly aligning themselves with social and political issues, brand imagery impacts consumers daily.
“Big brands have a responsibility in the world — they have the ear of the mainstream, and it’s important for them to be really careful,” said Fataar.
Internal checks for external viewpoints
The Zara campaign underscores that marketers must set up an internal set of checks and balances to ensure campaigns resonate with both broad and niche audiences.
“There needs to be space for questioning and challenging things in order to shift things forward, because the world is shifting,” said Fataar.
It’s also important for marketers to look outside their own four walls and listen to what their audiences are saying online and elsewhere to understand the context in which they are receiving brand messages.
“You need to make sure that you’ve got eyes outside that inputs information that may be relevant for your audience, your community, your fans,” said Fataar.
“Brands that fail to contextualize their products in the broader context of their audience’s lives risk such damaging oversights,” added Abraham.
The Zara campaign case proves that regardless of how far in advance work is planned out, in a fast-moving world, campaigns need to be reexamined with a global view prior to launch.
While Campaign US could not reach Zara to learn more about its internal creative process, large-scale campaigns typically go through multiple rounds of approvals prior to release.
“It's crucial, before releasing a campaign, to thoroughly assess it against potential sensitivities rooted in diverse cultures, taking into account the global context at the time of the launch,” noted Abraham. “There are tools and methodologies that enable brands to better connect with consumers and predict their responses before launching a campaign, making such missteps as this one preventable.”
As for how Zara can move forward, Cooksley said she believes it “ has no choice but to address the war,” and hopes more brands will do the same.
“There’s a humanitarian crisis going on, which is admittedly quite complex, but that doesn’t change the fact that we need to recognize what’s happening,” she added.