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Social Media Crisis PR Marketing

How Zara could have avoided controversial campaign claimed to resemble Gaza


By Hannah Bowler, Senior Reporter

December 12, 2023 | 12 min read

Reaction to the clothing retailer’s ad campaign serves as a warning to unprepared brands failing to adapt quickly enough to unfolding cultural and political events.

Zara storefront

Zara in hot water over 'tone deaf' ad campaign / AdobeStock

Fashion retailer Zara has pulled its ‘The Jacket’ campaign and put out a statement after social media users called for a boycott. As experts tell The Drum, however, the brand’s social media leaders should have intervened and stopped its publication.

On Sunday (December 10), a collection of images showing a model against a backdrop of broken plaster surrounded by dismembered mannequins was posted on Zara’s social media channels. In one photograph, she holds a mannequin wrapped in white material on her shoulder. A similar scene featured in some in-store displays.

The Advertising Standards Authority says it has received over 50 complaints claiming that the imagery is offensive and that it references the Israel-Gaza conflict. Zara, however, says the campaign was intended to depict sculptures in a sculptor’s studio.

Zara’s statement, posted on Tuesday morning (December 12), says that the campaign was conceived and photographed before the conflict started. “Unfortunately, some customers felt offended by these images, which have now been removed, and saw in them something far from what was intended when they were created,” the statement reads. It continues: “Zara regrets the misunderstanding and we reaffirm our deep respect towards everyone.”

While Zara says there was no intent behind the campaign, should it have done more in the first place to avoid causing offense?

Giselle Elsom, who is client services director at Truffle Social, accepts that Zara couldn’t have predicted the conflict on the planned release date. However, she says: “It should then be checked before it goes live, especially during times like these.”

Truffle Social, which has run social campaigns for the likes of Debenhams and Julian McDonald, has an internal process that means any scheduled content has final approval from a senior team member. “We would never let anything go out without this and we use a platform to make sure this is the case; the content can only go live once that final approver has pressed the button.”

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All the social media experts we speak to recall a time when they intervened to get a campaign pulled, although Seen Connects' head of brand marketing, Lucy Robertson, acknowledges that there is “no specific rulebook” and every case is different.

“We need to be aware of market nuance – for example, do we have a US-based campaign going live when there’s a particularly sensitive news story currently running there? Territory, intent, the content itself – there are several ingredients that go into making the decision on how appropriate it is to push ahead.”

Both Robertson and Elsom tell The Drum that it’s up to the senior leaders at the social agency to push back directly with the senior leaders on the brand side. “The senior team leads have ultimate responsibility here as they’re able to provide the client lens and make the assessment,” adds Robertson.

Parallels with M&S’s Christmas campaign

A similar incident occurred in early November when the UK supermarket chain Marks & Spencer faced a backlash against a social post taken from its Christmas advert. The image showed red and green Christmas cracker crowns being burned in a fireplace and was criticized online for resembling a Palestinian flag on fire. The ASA received 116 complaints about the image.

Marks & Spencer was quick to react by taking down the post and putting out a statement claiming that, like Zara, the photograph was taken before the war started. “While the intent was to playfully show that some people just don’t enjoy wearing paper Christmas hats over the festive season, we have removed the post following feedback and we apologize for any unintentional hurt caused,” it read.

Tamara Littleton, the co-founder of PR crisis company Polpeo, likens the cases and explains that both are about “perception” and not intention. However, she says even if a brand doesn’t intend to cause harm, being able to switch direction quickly is part of the job remit now.

“You have to be ready to apologize,” she says. ”M&S apologized very quickly, dealt with it swiftly and moved on, but Zara focused so much on the intent and then went quiet. If it had focused more on the apology, it would have moved it on much faster.”

In this instance, the public and the press stepped in to create their narrative and Littleton’s own social listening has counted 38,000 comments about the Zara campaign.

She says that brands should by now be used to this way of working, having learned from the pandemic. “Brands need to be more sensitive to how customers are behaving and it’s really about reading the room. Brands need to be able to switch direction quickly – this is the new normal. It might be that these are prepared months in advance, but world events get in the way.”

Littleton, who is also chief executive officer of The Social Element, acknowledges that the decision isn’t always easy, especially when money is at risk of being wasted, but “sometimes you make to have to make brave, bold decisions and say, ‘this is not going to land well with our audience.’”

Be agile, reactive and brave to respond to change

The Zara campaign spanned in-store marketing and online, where teams often work in silos. The social team, though, can be of huge benefit to the rest of the brand team to ensure that campaigns across various marketing functions stay as close as possible to the cultural pulse.

Jess Morris, the campaign director at The Goat Agency, says it’s the job of the brand and agency social team to be “on top of the news on a macro scale,” but also within the world of influencer marketing and social. She says the only way to do this is to continuously interact, research and report, and to conduct social listening and audience sentiment analysis.

“If you understand your audience, where their interests are, how they might be feeling and what they’re engaging with – positively and negatively – on social, you’re in a better place to understand how they may receive your content. The key is to have a team that can be agile and reactive and is set up to respond to change.”

Additional reporting from senior reporter Amy Houston.

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