A Look at the Balenciaga Ad Controversy

Negative publicity is still publicity, but when do we say that something has crossed the line? For this, we look into the recent Balenciaga campaign scandal.

In advertising, the sight of kids almost instantly captures the attention of adult audience—tugging their heartstrings and inciting that “aww” factor. Given that favorable reaction, many brands have included children in their promotional materials and ads throughout the years.

Some, however, have abused this. In fact, over 120 million accounts and content were removed from social media platforms in 2021 due to child abuse and safety reasons. And 56 million of said accounts and content removed came from Facebook. 

Fast forward one year later and another child abuse-related content has caused an instant uproar on social media. Famed luxury fashion house Balenciaga’s Spring/Summer 2023 campaign has become the latest topic of discussion about where to draw the line when it comes to negative publicity. 

Balenciaga Ad Controversy: What Happened

It all started on November 16, 2022—the day Balenciaga launched the “Balenciaga Gift Shop” for its Spring/Summer 2023 collection. 

The first campaign, which was shot by award-winning photographer Gabriele Galimberti, “featured photos of children holding handbags that looked like teddy bears wearing leather harnesses and spiked collars with wine glasses near in some of the shots,” according to People.com

The second campaign, on the other hand, featured a page from a Supreme Court ruling of United States v. Williams. This particular ruling declared that the promotion of child pornography is not protected under freedom of speech, therefore making it an illegal act punishable by the law. 

Needless to say, the backlash against the campaigns was instant and ugly. 

Galimberti, who emphasized that he had no participation in the second campaign, posted a statement on his Instagram account to address the controversy. “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 [sic] the products, nor the models, nor the combination of the same,” the famed photographer clarified. 

“As usual for a commercial shooting, the direction of the campaign and the choice of the objects displayed are not in the hands of the photographer,” he emphasized. 

Celebrities, including Kim Kardashian, Brittany Aldean, and Julia Fox, were quick to condemn the campaigns. “As a mother of four, I have been shaken by the disturbing images. The safety of children must be held with the highest regard and any attempts to normalize child abuse of any kind should have no place in our society—period,” Kardashian said as part of her statement posted on her Twitter account. 

Balenciaga has already responded to the backlash on more than one occasion. Its official Instagram account only has just one post as of writing, which is actually the statement of President and CEO Cédric Charbit.

Screenshot taken from Balenciaga’s Instagram page

While Balenciaga’s Creative Director Demna Gvasalia likewise posted an apology on his personal Instagram account, it did not save him from losing the Global Voices award that The Business of Fashion initially announced would be given to him. 

Following the backlash, The Spanish fashion house also filed a USD$25 million lawsuit against production company North Six, Inc. and set designer Nicholas Des Jardins over the campaigns. The lawsuit has since then been dropped. 

Despite the handful of apologies and even a threat of a lawsuit, the damage has already been done. 

What We Can Learn From the Balenciaga Ad Controversy

“As much as I would sometimes like to provoke a thought through my work, I would NEVER have [the] intention to do that with such an awful subject as child abuse that I condemn,” writes Demna on Instagram.

As much as campaigns and advertisements are meant to catch attention and make people stop and think, it should never be forgotten that there is a fine line between provoking a thought and promoting harmful ideas and even criminal acts like child abuse. 

Moreover, in a world where everything is scrutinized and criticized, and where danger lurks not just on the streets but also on social media, no one can afford to make mistakes like Balenciaga in their campaign. This includes businesses, content creators, and the like.

It is, therefore, a reminder to everyone not to be negligent with the messages being sent out—may it be in a one-on-one conversation or in an ad campaign that reaches millions of people.