After Burberry’s recent fashion “faux pas” with its fall/winter 2019 collection, Helen Long considers how brands need to be more responsible when it comes to the depiction of violence and suicide.
The iconic British fashion house, Burberry, has come under fire after parading a ‘noose-hoodie’ on its fall/winter 2019 catwalk in the midst of a highly publicised London Fashion Week earlier this February. Images of the hoodie, which show a hangman’s knot dangling around the neck of a model, quickly surged through social media to a largely hostile online reception. Now, I may know next to nothing about fashion, but even I can spot a publicity stunt when I see one.
It is unsurprising Burberry felt safe to do this. Modern society seems more willing than ever to tolerate blood and violence in all media forms. According to research, violence in films has more than doubled since 1950, while the Human Caterpillars and Saws of the world suggest a growing appetite for barely-stomachable gore. Gone are the days of robot sharks and fake blood spatters – it’s all about the biggest shocks in crystal-clear HD. Given all of this, you’d be forgiven for believing society had grown a sufficiently thick skin.
This issue at hand, however, is far different from the bloody drama of horror films. We have known for years the dangers of portraying suicide in film and TV, and studies from as far back as 1988 corroborate this theory. When studying New York teenagers, researchers found that the broadcast of certain fictional films caused a “significant increase” in the number of suicide attempts. For this reason, public bodies, such as the World Health Organization, issue very specific warnings about how suicide should and should not be handled in the media.
Of course, such depictions are rarely seen in the calmer waters of the fashion industry, but could they have the same effect?
Dr Antonis Kousoulis of the Mental Health Foundation certainly thinks so. “It’s not a media company but it’s heavily featured in the media so the same guidelines would apply,” he told the Huffington Post, who refused to even post an image of the hoodie. “There are thousands of people who have been impacted by suicide. At the very least, brands should understand that images can be triggering.”
Unfortunately, Burberry is not the only one flouting crucial guidance in favour of a self-serving media storm. After its release in 2017, the original Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why, faced similar controversy for its graphic depiction of a young girl’s suicide. The show follows a central group of high school students and is marketed towards children of a similar age group. Despite its serious subject matter, 13 Reasons Why is infused with the giggly feeling of watching an 18-rated movie as a child. Every horrific human experience is touched upon in as gruesome a way as possible. The worst, of course, is the depiction of protagonist Hannah’s suicide.
Since Netflix is its own production company, it was able to bypass restrictions imposed by broadcasters and film in raw detail. The resulting scene is viewed as a gritty, emotional representation of Hannah’s intense suffering; for a vulnerable person, however, it could be a step-by-step guide on how to end their own life. These were the warnings of psychologists, which Netflix openly ignored. The streaming service’s reasoning was that it hoped to improve awareness of the subject, but producers knew how much attention the scene would generate. Sure enough, it prompted countless tweets, blogs, and elaborate YouTube videos meticulously dissecting the subject matter. Whatever the scene’s intention, it is undeniable that the overarching result was a hell of a lot of free publicity.
Sadly, Google searches for suicide markedly increased following the show’s initial broadcast, with up to 1.5 million more searches than expected. Even worse, a 14-year-old cheerleader from Alabama was found dead in her bathroom in very similar circumstances to those presented in the show. She even purportedly left seven letters behind, reminiscent of the tapes Hannah left for her peers. Netflix was aware of the risks, yet barged on ahead with inflammatory content. Now it potentially has the death of a young girl on its hands.
This era is benchmarked as the one in which we finally ‘got’ mental health. We encourage men to cry, share helplines, openly discuss the benefit of therapy and are slowly destigmatising the use of antidepressants. Yet as suicide rates increase in the UK, we are content to have the idea of suicide everywhere. It’s on our TVs, in our books, and now strung around a model’s neck. Brands need to wake up and see that using it as a marketing method is not just lazy, it’s downright reckless.
The road to change is long, but it’s possible. Earlier this year, Instagram vowed to take down all images of self-harm after the tragic suicide of 14-year-old Molly Russell. However, season 3 of 13 Reasons Why already has a release date, and fashion brands seemingly have no qualms with using suicide for a vain attempt at relevancy. Once again we’re taking part in a dangerous game of two steps forward, one step back, only it’s people’s lives we’re playing with.
If any of the issues discussed in the article have affected you or those you know, you can contact the Samaritans for free on this number 116 123.