Can you imagine the audacity (caucasity) you’d need to land John Boyega as talent for your ad, have him create a deeply personal short film based on his own life, and then rip the whole concept off and replace him? Jo Malone did not read the room, and they don’t have to imagine.
In a series of tweets, the actor—who you’ll know from Star Wars, or ~adore~ from Attack The Block—announced that he was stepping down as luxury fragrance house Jo Malone’s global ambassador. “When I joined the brand as their first male global ambassador last year, I created the short film we used to launch the campaign,” he shared via Twitter. An award-winning campaign btw, you can peep Boyega’s talent and creative range here.
The film features Boyega’s actual friends and family, our king riding horseback, and walking through the London district of Peckham, where he grew up. The ‘yikes’ begins with what happened when Jo Malone adapted the campaign for the Chinese market. And by adapted, we mean swapping out Boyega for Detective Chinatown star Liu Haoran—a decision made without Boyega’s consent or prior notice.
For context, it’s not abnormal for brands to create multiple versions of an ad for different markets with different ambassadors. As Boyega wrote though, “while many brands understandably use a variety of global and local ambassadors, dismissively trading out one’s culture this way is not something I can condone.”
Even with a generous helping of the benefit of the doubt, it smells bad. At best, it’s a conscious and deliberate disregard for his intellectual property, at worst it reads as anti-Black racism. Boyega has been deeply involved in the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement, which Jo Malone claimed to support. Though as one Twitter user wrote, “creating the conditions for black people and other ethnic minorities to have little choice other than to step away is neither an act of respect nor a stance of solidarity.”
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“Black lives have always mattered. We have always been important. We have always meant something. I ain’t waiting. I ain’t waiting.” Star Wars actor #JohnBoyega delivered a powerful speech at a #BlackLivesMatter protest in London. Holding a megaphone and surrounded by fellow activists in London’s Hyde Park, Boyega spoke to the crowd of Londoners demanding justice for George Floyd’s death, before marching through central London, chanting his and Belly Mujinga’s name. Belly Mujinga was a rail worker at London’s Victoria Station. She died from Covid-19 after allegedly being spat on and assaulted by an individual who was knowingly infected with Covid-19. But, following “extensive inquiries,” British Transport Police claimed the attack did not lead to her death and that no further action would be taken against the man behind the assault. “I need you to understand how painful it is to be reminded every day that your race means nothing. And that isn’t the case anymore. That is never the case anymore. We are a physical representation of our support for George Floyd.”
The decision to replace him is unfortunate on a bunch of levels. Not only because of how disposably he was treated but also because of the missed opportunity for representation that might have, gently, sparked a little discussion around addressing anti-Black racism in Asian communities. Despite over-simplified perceptions, China is not a racial or ethnic monolith. Is it not kind of condescending to believe a Chinese consumer must see a Chinese face for an ad to appeal to them? In 2020? Also, it’s John Boyega?!
Fellow actor Yara Shadidi, of Black-ish, praised and thanked Boyega for his stance. “All too often, brands engage talent because they know the cachet attached to who they are, their voice, and the power of what they stand for.” She explained how for her, “entering deals is contingent on the fact that what is being sold on screen, matches the ethics and commitments the brand has made off screen [sic].”
She cited the potential pitfalls of relationship: because there’s often nothing legal holding the brand to the same standards as the talent, bait and switches aren’t out of the ordinary. It’s also not the first time Boyega has called out injustice at the danger of his own career and professional relationships. Our king also reamed Disney for doing “fuck all” with Star Wars‘ characters of colour.
Jo Malone called the whole thing “a mistake in the local execution of the John Boyega campaign.” Somewhere, a Diptyque PR person is cackling.